Film / Reviews

'Seymour: An Introduction': For the love of music and its craft

by Kaori Shoji

Watching the quiet, classical-music-infused “Seymour: An Introduction” made me recall another film about a musician: the jazz drama “Whiplash,” which made a lot of splashes and won three Oscars. The two may be completely different experiences, yet the films seem to play off each other, like paths of parallel universes.

“Seymour” is a documentary about Manhattan pianist Seymour Bernstein, directed by eternal indies heartthrob Ethan Hawke. “Whiplash” was very loosely based on the autobiographical events of its director, Damien Chazelle, and starred red-carpet treaders Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Ten years from now, my bet is that people will remember Hawke and Bernstein over the people who made “Whiplash.” This is not a comment on the quality of the movies, but on the particular nature of music and musicians. “Whiplash” was about the battle between the two, “Seymour: An Introduction” is a love story.

“Seymour” is intriguing, mainly because it brings together two uniquely talented artists — Hawke and Bernstein — and captures them in thought and ocasionally in conversation, sometimes together but more often on their own. Hawke does what he does best, which is ponder and philosophize on the meaning of his work and existence: “I’ve been struggling lately with why I do what I do.” His most memorable performances have even shown him doing just that: Ben Stiller’s romantic comedy “Reality Bites” and Richard Linklater’s relationship trilogy of “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight,” all have him in various stages of charming, seductive soliloquy. Sure, his characters were usually full of themselves, but the self-doubt and a blase, disheveled demeanor, is a winning combination.

Seymour: An Introduction (Seymour-san to Otona no Tame no Jinsei Nyumon)
Rating
Run Time 84 mins
Language English
Opens OCT. 1

Now, in “Seymour” he brings the full-force of that combination to Bernstein, with a good dose of his own personal vulnerability as well. (Hawke confides to Seymour of a “crippling” stage fright and Seymour reassures him that getting nervous is part of the craft. They share a lot of similar buddy moments.) As wonderful as Hawke’s own presence in this documentary is, however, it’s always Bernstein who steals the show, and rightly so. You get the feeling that Hawke didn’t want it any other way.

At 86, at the time this film was made in 2013, Bernstein is still a formidable musician, though he disappeared from the concert circuit after he reached 50 years of age. He still lives alone in the same studio apartment he has occupied for 57 years and earns an income from giving piano lessons to musicians, whose ages range from mid-teens to 50-something. Contrary to his hermetic habits and his own claims to overwhelming stage fright, which he says eventually drove him away from giving public performances, Bernstein remains an impressive, audacious figure with a subtly commanding presence and easy rapport with the camera. Yet he is by no means imposing, echoing Hawke’s on-screen and off-screen persona.

Both men appear to be the opposite of “macho” — they’re gentle and graceful, always pondering out loud about distinctly nonmasculine subjects, including art, nervousness and feelings. Bernstein even talks about how sad it is that male artists tend to suppress their inner femininity, which he suggests should instead be embraced as a good and even necessary trait for artists to cultivate their craft.

As we watch the pianist play and listen to him chat, we see that for Bernstein, his feminine side — his rapport with music and empathic performances — allow him to be strong and resilient. He is immune to most of the hang-ups that plague so many artists — boredom, loneliness, the loss of appreciation for their art — and instead remains truly enthralled and inspired by music. He listens to every note (of his own and others’ playing) with wonder and devotion, as if he was still that young boy discovering for the first time, that he has a gift.

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