A famous pianist emerges after 35 years thanks to Ethan Hawke
Seymour Bernstein was one of the most acclaimed pianists in his day but 35 years ago, after winning rave reviews the world over, he suddenly and quietly retired from performing. The why of it all has never really been solved but now thanks to his friend Ethan Hawke his life and his gifts are being introduced to a whole new generation, most of whom have never heard of him before. The result is a documentary which flirts a little too much with being a love letter/propaganda piece but also allows us into the mind of a man who is deeply intelligent and philosophical. Most of his ideas relate in one way or another to music, which is to be expected, but none of them are dull. At only 84 minutes Hawke probably spends a little too much time watching as Bernstein instructs one pupil after another, but on the whole he has turned in a pretty savvy picture. He has found a way to sing the praises of a man who clearly means a lot to him while also educating and entertaining the audience, even those who have no musical background whatsoever (guilty).
The soft mystery at the heart of Seymour: An Introduction (why did he walk away at the height of his powers) hangs over a lot of the conversation but there certainly isn’t any pretense on Hawke’s part as to whether or not he will get to the bottom of it. Current New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman pushes this question the hardest during their conversation that is sprinkled throughout. His theory is that the stage fright gets to be too much for him and while Bernstein does not confirm this to be the case he definitely does not deny it either. But whatever the hard truth may be it is impossible to argue after watching him here that he does not have a happy and fulfilled life away from the spotlight. He doesn’t go full Salinger but he does speak about his reclusive nature and how important his time alone is to him. Yes, he does socialize and teach and both help him lead a full life, especially the teaching as it allows him to pour his knowledge into the minds of his students, as he puts it.
Being someone whose music career ended in the fourth grade I didn’t derive much joy out of the parts that were overtly musical in nature. Hawke did dig up some old videos of piano giants of years gone by and those are put to extraordinary use as he shows just exciting and transcendent that medium can be. More interesting still however were the scenes in which he just sat and talked to friends and colleagues about the broader issues of life. Kimmelman probes him on the nature of being an artist and why so many of the greats happen to be monsters in their personal lives. Bernstein is thoughtful as he waxes poetic on the disconnect between the control needed to generate art that is seen as special and the need to let those controlling tendencies go when dealing with people in social situations. Much more wonky but just as much fun is when Berstein finds himself in a brief debate with some former students of his over the pervasiveness of B-flat in our world (Black holes hum in B-Flat and most of the great classical pieces throughout history have been composed in B-Flat… coincidence?). He lays it on a little thick when he says that the lack of musical education in our country leaves us as “half-formed adults” when we leave school but I absolutely respect the passion of a man, closing in on 90, who is out there fighting for the things in life that mean something to him.
Hawke doesn’t spend a lot of time on camera here but in the few minutes that he is he makes it seem as though part of his motivation in making this movie was to resolve a mid-life/mid-career crisis he is going through. He laments the fact that some of his most “successful” works are also some of his worst (Welcome to Hollywood kid) and in Bernstein he has found somebody who was comfortable walking away from all of the trappings of fame and fortune. As with most everything Hawke does there is an air of snootiness about it but it has never really bothered me coming from him because I think that it is coming from a genuine place. Indeed the concert Bernstein performs at the end feels like a forced climax (though shout out to the gentleman who showed up in a custom made surgical mask), but I think the fact that he was able to go through with it speaks highly of both the main players here. Their friendship was originally borne out of Hawke needing help with a bout of stage fright, one that he credits Bernstein with helping him through. And here, with Hawke forcing Bernstein out of his monk-like existence and into movie theaters/back onto stage we can make the case that their charity for one another has come full circle.