When I was little, my mom forced my sister and I into violin lessons. For more than a decade, I plinked and plunked – sometimes even in tune – under the guidance of my teacher Yuri, a Russian immigrant who came to America with his fellow violinist wife Luda.
Near the end of that time – when it became clear I no longer had the interest, the free time or, most importantly, the talent for the instrument – our lessons evolved. We would spend more and more time just talking – about his life in the Soviet Union, about the immigration process, about culture changes, about my school and education, about movies, about art – with beautiful music serving as conversational interludes. What I failed to learn about violin – I stubbornly never even held the thing right – I instead learned about life, art and the world, leaving each lesson feeling my self at ease and my mind grown.
I had a similar sensation walking out of "Seymour: An Introduction," Ethan Hawke’s warm, soothing and just rather lovely profile of Seymour Bernstein, a rising classical piano star who, at 50, quietly quit performing professionally to serve as a music teacher. And what could wind up playing somewhat mundane – or even worse, maudlin – ends up rather sweetly moving.
Hawke, who periodically pops out from behind the camera to talk to Seymour or introduce the pianist at an event, describes feeling "immediately safe" around Bernstein, a sensation that translates nicely through the screen and into the audience during "Seymour: An Introduction." Whether it’s during their interviews, various interactions or just his lessons, Bernstein makes for a soft-spoken, warm and comforting presence, disclosing thoughts and stories both fun and unfortunate.
He’s easy to be charmed by, and Hawke’s quiet, appreciative approach enhances the intimacy the audience feels. The film’s title calls this "An Introduction," but it feels like the audience has known him for much longer, that this is just a cozy lunchtime conversation with an old friend.
As for the conversations, they may be cozy, but they still hit on some fascinating and dense content. Seymour’s own history offers plenty of material, from his rise as a master performer to his time spent serving during the Korean War to, most intriguingly, his sudden departure from the spotlight into a life of solitude. Hawke and company get an answer – namely pressure and stage fright – but solving that "mystery" is nowhere close to the movie’s biggest concern. Instead, they move the discussion seamlessly in other interesting directions, asking about one’s responsibility to share their talents, the misconceptions of talent versus craft, Bernstein’s disgruntled thoughts on Glenn Gould and other philosophies of music and art – and therefore life.
Even just his music lessons – whether private or in a college seminar – are beautiful to witness, with Bernstein delicately but decisively instructing everything from simply correct positioning to finding the meaning and feeling in the notes. And it should go without saying that the music from those lessons – and from Bernstein’s own playing – is just a soothing delight to hear, especially when hearing the master carefully explain how the music is coming together in his head.
Whether in conversation or in performance, Hawke and editor Anna Gustavi smartly stay out of the way and just let him go, and the results are lovely. The final sequence, for instance, follows Seymour and one sonata, performed for a small crowd and for himself privately, talking through the music and the emotion.
It’s all fascinating while rarely feeling like some sort of rigid bulletpoint-hitting profile or heavy philosophical treatise. The rare occasions when "Seymour: An Introduction" trips up are when Hawke’s questions, about his own career and "monsters," take center stage and infringe on the natural intimacy. They’re fine questions, but they come off like someone asking Important Questions looking for Meaning, whereas the rest of the film finds those things with ease.
"Seymour" is also not the most inventively filmed doc, but what it plainly captures is beautiful and heartwarming nonetheless. There’s a brief moment where Seymour is hunting for the right piano for a rare small show. He finds it, and he’s just so happy and excited about the sounds he’s hearing. It’s a contagious scene in an equally contagious film, profiling the joy of music, talent and craft out of the spotlight but by no means out of service.
"Seymour: An Introduction": ***
"Seymour: An Introduction" shows tonight at 7 p.m. at the Fox Bay Cinema as a part of the Milwaukee Film Festival.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.