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Review: Seymour: An Introduction

Seymour Bernstein has music in his blood and bones. So intrinsic to his very existence are the notes he plays on his beloved piano. One gets the sense the 81 year old piano teacher would have evaporated into thin air a long time ago. I hesitate to say that a lack of music in his life would have killed him because he seems too strong and self-aware of a person to let anything other than father time claim him at this point. Plus, if he can be happy as a teacher of new pupils and not performing for over thirty years in front of an audience, it stands as proof that he’s so professional an artist (and with nothing really left to prove) that his art can sustain him as long as he’s happy creating it.

Bernstein is the subject of actor Ethan Hawke’s debut documentary feature Seymour: An Introduction, a wonderfully touching look at one of the most relaxed and down to earth artists you’ll probably ever encounter on screen. One of the most accomplished and critically lauded classical pianists to ever perform, Bernstein gave up performing at the age of 50 because he seemed to be overthinking it. He was getting nervous jitters that had never affected him before. In danger of walking away from what essentially made him who he is, Bernstein took to teaching younger students and never looked back. In the process, he became a mentor and friend to many who needed proper guidance instead of being constantly shouted at Whiplash-style.

Hawke speaks with past and present students, and allows himself to interact with Bernstein on camera several times, but his direction in relaying this man’s inspiring story takes a more laissez faire approach. Plenty has been written about Bernstein’s past successes and personal life (including by Bernstein in his 2002 memoir), so Hawke places the emphasis firmly on the art form and the man who helps to shape it every day with well thought out advice and guidance towards those that seek to keep it vibrant and relevant. It’s actually more engaging to watch Bernstein talk about his art than simply watching him talk about himself. It closes the gap between the art and the artist with a great degree of skill, even if Hawke’s assembly seems somewhat aimless in terms of how to put it all together. But once the film shows Bernstein’s triumphant first performance in decades, the film’s winning spirit and nuanced intimacy carries the day perfectly.

[star v=4]

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker is a freelance film critic in Toronto. You can follow him on twitter @andrewjparker.