Arts

imovie review

String theory explained in ‘Itzhak’

Matt York/ap file photo

If Alison Chernick’s “Itzhak,” a documentary about the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, had a musical tempo designation, it would probably be “A capriccio” (Italian for “following one’s fancy”).

She depicts Perlman’s life as a breathless rush from one event to another. He goes from playing the national anthem before a Mets game to performing onstage with Billy Joel, from recording Bach to cooking soup for Alan Alda. The zesty and artful style with which Chernick records this manic schedule mirrors the mercurial spirit of her subject.

But it didn’t come easy for the winner of 16 Grammys, four Emmys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many other awards and honors. Born to poor, hard-working Polish immigrants in Israel, he contracted polio at the age of 4, leaving him unable to walk without braces and crutches (now he mostly uses an electric scooter).

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As he recalls, he was judged at first more for his disability than for his talent until he appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1958 at the age of 13. In archival footage, the chubby young Perlman is shown dazzling Sullivan with a virtuoso performance of the Allegretto non troppo from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.

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After that, nothing could stop his rise. Most recently he is shown in Jerusalem accepting the Genesis Prize (the “Jewish Nobel”) from Benjamin Netanyahu. (Before having lunch with the Israeli Prime Minister, Perlman says in an aside, “We don’t have to talk about politics. We can talk about music.”)

If anything, Chernick’s film shows a life that may be too perfect. In addition to his triumphant career, Perlman has a seemingly ideal marriage — to Toby, a woman who is his match in ebullience, wit, and passion for art and music. It has lasted for more than 50 years. 

But there are dark notes. Perlman jokes that his early years of studying in Israel with demanding parents and a strict teacher was a “triangle of hell.” He talks about Jews who were compelled to perform in death camp orchestras in order to survive — a somber reflection that provides a powerful segue to a performance of John Williams’s theme music to “Schindler’s List.”

Nonetheless, aside from annoyances such as negotiating Manhattan sidewalks on his scooter after a snowstorm, he is a happy man. After being deeply moved listening on a car radio to a recording of Marian Anderson singing, he says, “Am I not lucky to be affected by music like this?” When you watch an archival clip from 1974 of him playing the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2, maybe the most tragic piece of music ever composed, you might feel the same.

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ITZHAK

Directed by Alison Chernick. 83 minutes. At Kendall Square. Unrated (music that might make you weep). In English and Hebrew, with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.