Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated concert pianist and Korean War veteran, has lived in the same one-room apartment for fifty years. Throughout the last couple decades, Seymour has retired from performing and has found a calling in giving piano lessons to players of all skill levels. A chance encounter with actor Ethan Hawke eventually led to Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about the life and philosophy of Seymour Bernstein. Through conversations with a number of colleagues and friends, as well as Mr. Hawke himself, Bernstein’s approach to life is a genuine delight, one that should be shared with anyone who can listen.
At barely 80 minutes, Seymour: An Introduction – a riff on the JD Salinger story – is exactly what it promises to be. The film is merely an introduction to Mr. Bernstein’s life and times, a surface level examination of a man who has seen and experienced so much in his eight decades on this Earth. Certain moments of insight reveal more than others – a particular moment where Mr. Bernstein breaks into tears while talking about the Korean War is arguably the most moving in the entire film – while others are less effective, if only because of director Ethan Hawke’s unceasing admiration for his subject.
While the film does not overstay its welcome, some healthy debate would have been appreciated. At a certain point, Seymour: An Introduction began to feel like an extended motivational speech, one that goes uncontested by its numerous recipients and interviewees throughout. It’s the kind of film that wears its heart on its sleeve, but in a way that is as admirable as it is unwarranted. The film so desperately needed to delve deeper into Seymour Bernstein’s construction as a human being instead of simply propping him up on a pedestal of sorts.
What Hawke does with this film is create an essence. When leaving the theater, Bernstein will almost surely be remembered as the type of New York resident who you would run into on the street and have a brief, pleasant conversation with. He’s the type of fellow who will spot you that extra quarter for your morning coffee or tell you where to go if you’re lost on the subway. He’s a wealth of knowledge, sure, but he’s also a good man, and Hawke seems more concerned with making sure that comes across, more so than anything else.
Bernstein is obviously someone he looks up to, and scenes where Hawke interjects to discuss his own feelings of doubt regarding his artistry are interesting in their own right. But Seymour: An Introduction doesn’t always have that lasting, timeless quality that it should, especially with a subject as profound as the one we’re offered here. Hawke’s film does have a lot of fascinating anecdotes on the nature of artistry, music, and performance. It asks its audience to reassess their own definition of art and music, all while shining the spotlight on one of music’s unsung heroes. But if, perhaps, Seymour was not an introduction and more of an examination, the results would have been legendary.Continue Reading Issue #40
March 13th, 2015
1 hr. 21 min.
Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke