SEYMOUR: An Introduction
Sundance Selects
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.
Grade:  A-
Director:  Ethan Hawke
Cast:  Seymour Bernstein, Kimball Gallagher, Andrew Harvey, Junko Ichikawa, Michael Kimmelman, Joseph Smith, Ethan Hawke
Screened at:  Critics’ link, NYC, 2/22/15
Opens:  March 13, 2015

When Seymour Bernstein was sent to the front lines in Korea during that awful war in the early 1950s, he asked the officials whether he and a violinist could perform for fellow soldiers.  “Classical music?” reported the official.  “They’ll never go for that.”  Now, these people had never heard classical music.  Long story short, the audience would not let the duo off the stage.  Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast, and so Ethan Hawke’s documentary on the amazing career of New Yorker Seymour Bernstein lets us in the theater audience see whether Hawke’s subject knows whereof he speaks when he says that “I never knew that with my hands I could touch the sky.”

Music is the universal language, the most abstract of the arts and therefore the one that can presumably transcend the petty differences among people.  With “Seymour: An Introduction,” one would scarcely be surprised to discover that this gem of a film, one that avoids the usual bane of documentaries, the talking heads, would appeal to lovers of Bach and the Beatles alike, of Beethoven and the Beach Boys and even Taylor Swift.

Ethan Hawke, who appears in the all-too-brief picture now and then talking about a few of his own hangups with stage fright, presents Seymour Bernstein in the most positive light.  Bernstein, who gave up a brilliant career as a concert pianist at age fifty to spend his time composing and teaching, began playing at the age of five after begging his mother to get him a piano.  The film may arbitrarily be divided into Bernstein as a pianist, Bernstein as a teacher, and Bernstein as a philosopher, even a mystic.  We get the impression that instead of suggesting a prescription for a beta-blocker or a valium, he assured Hawke that nervousness was a good thing; that in fact, if a performer were not shaky getting onto the stage, he is not ready to be an actor.  “You will get nervous when you learn how to act,” said Sarah Bernhardt to a pupil.

Now at the age of eighty-six, he speaks slowly, calmly, without a show of exaggerated emotions, letting the music do the job of elevating us in the audience.  He is interviewed in an Upper West Side restaurant by pianist and New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman, but the back-and-forth feels nothing like the deadening palaver that we’re so accustomed to in documentaries.  As people wander to and fro outside, Kimmelman and Bernstein are simply having a chat that could have been recorded by a surveillance camera rather than by cinematographer Ramsey Fendall.

If you’re not professionally attuned to slight variances in playing you would completely miss some of the errors that Bernstein finds in the students—who to the untrained ear sound simply gorgeous on the piano from which Bernstein teaches in his Upper West Side apartment.  He is encouraging, as every teacher must be, but by criticizing his students who appear to vary in age between fifteen and fifty, he is implicitly demonstrating his faith in the their ability to play flawlessly.

In one of his insights that show Bernstein as an enemy of machismo, he laments the way that so many men subdue their feminine aspects.  Macho men may go for the stormy sounds of Beethoven—as my own former students of history are able to appreciate the climax of Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture—but we should all be able to tap on the soft pedal, he opines.  But what human being with even the slightest cultivation could resist the romantic notes of a Schumann, a Schubert, a Berlioz?

Like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Seymour: An Introduction,” looks bound for a sequel.  This might give us more insights into Bernstein’s father, who had no appreciation of his son’s talent, perhaps to hear snippets of some of the creations of this warm-hearted pianist-teacher-composer.

Rated PG.  81 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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