Ethan Hawke’s documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” is by far the best film he has made. It would pair up nicely in a twin bill about music education with Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (2014).
Seymour Bernstein, now 87, the Yoda-like piano virtuoso and instructor profiled in Hawke’s film, gently explains his pedagogical philosophy: “By practicing you can establish so deep an accord between your musical sense and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.”
Is that approach more likely to inspire students to become better musicians than the chair-throwing tirades of the jazz teacher played by J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”? Hard to say, but Bernstein is the person you’d want to be your kid’s piano teacher.
And no offense to Simmons and his character, but Bernstein is without a doubt the person with whom you’d want to spend 81 minutes. Luckily, Hawke knows that when you have a subject as appealing and inexhaustibly fascinating as this, the best strategy is to just step back and let him take over — telling his stories, instructing students, and chatting with former pupils like New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman (students who don’t practice, it seems, become critics). And that is what Hawke does, except for an effusively earnest appearance or two, and his inspired structuring of the material into a subtle and aptly musical form.
Bernstein, perhaps the greatest pianist almost no one has heard of, decided he wanted to play at the age of 6, even though there was no music, not even records, in his household. Nonetheless, a family friend gave them an old upright piano. Bernstein opened the score for Schubert’s Serenade and played. “It seemed I had always known that piece,” he says. His mother found him weeping.
Evidence, perhaps, that Plato was right, and that all knowledge is innate, and teachers serve only as midwives to bring it forth. Be that as it may, Bernstein’s love of music and his talent had to survive the dissonances of experience: an unsympathetic father; a tour as a PFC in the Korean War in which his frontline performances stirred troops with no knowledge of classical music, many of whom ended up in body bags; a wealthy patroness who imprisoned him with adoration and gifts in a mansion; his determination to overcome stage fright, and having done so, ending his public performances at the age of 50 to teach and write music and live in solitude in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
He meets Hawke at a dinner party, and the actor confesses his own misgivings about his career and the purpose of life. And from that grew this movie. But what at first seems a random pastiche of charming vignettes and memories is intercut with preparations for Bernstein’s return to performing publicly, and the random themes — artistic purity, the demands of the world, the obligation to share one’s talent versus the isolation needed to nurture it — clash and resolve into Hawke’s elegant bagatelle of a film.
Whether or not Hawke got any answers to his questions about the purpose of being artist, seeking them under the guidance of a teacher like Bernstein resulted in this work of art.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.