Seymour Bernstein

Pianist Seymour Bernstein is the subject of Ethan Hawke's first documentary, "SeymIFC Films

‘Seymour: An Introduction’
Ethan Hawke
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG
4 (out of 5) Globes

Like Richard Linklater’s “Before” films, Ethan Hawke’s first documentary is a talking picture. Granted, it’s mostly one man who talks: Seymour Bernstein, a storied concert pianist who retired from public performances ages ago and has spent the time since passing on his chops to his students. He’s also passed on his considerable wisdom. That’s where “Seymour: An Introduction” comes in. It’s less a documentary profile than a greatest hits package of all that he’s learned, communicated to us via scenes of him teaching, chatting or speaking directly into the camera, slowly and calmly repeating nuggets of thought that have been chewed on and refined over his 80-some years.

Not that Bernstein is a pompous prophet. An eternally smiling, benevolent presence, he oozes warm, grandfatherly reassurance, sincerely hoping to encourage and enlighten. And he’s the ideal Hawke (and Linklater, for that matter) movie subject: he’s prone to sincere philosophical doodling, letting his thoughts take him, and the film, down stray avenues. His main business is about unlocking and massaging talent, whatever that may be. Music, though, is his thing, and he talks about how this wordless art (when it is wordless) is “a reminder of our own potential for perfection” He gushes about how music is fixed, notes forever on the page, yet also rhapsodizes on how they’re transformed both by the people playing them but even by the uniqueness of the instrument. No two piano players are the same, but the same goes with pianos.

All this of course can be applied to other matters, which is why Hawke — an actor and filmmaker, not a musician — found himself instantly transformed upon chance-meeting him at a dinner party. Like his subject, Hawke gently teases out Bernstein’s sagacity, and creates for him less a documentary than a happy space where his aphorisms and ideas — and occasionally those of his friends and colleagues — may freely bounce around. “Seymour: An Introduction” is as soothing as Bernstein himself, elegantly moving from one thought to the next, carried on by the sounds of piano and its subject’s own euphonious baritone. It’s constructed like a piece of “classical” music; the structure isn’t always apparent, but it’s there, and individual passages and the whole become quietly, modestly profound.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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