This little gem of a documentary premiered at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival. Released for general viewing in New York the first week of March, during the 7 Days of Genius Festival at 92Y (the famous 92nd Street YM & YWHA), the film is now playing in Toronto theatres and undoubtedly elsewhere. Catch it when it comes your way. This is a work of quiet genius which warrants repeated viewings. The woman sitting next to me the day I went had already seen it three times, bringing a dear friend with her each time.
So what’s the attraction? The star is 88-year-old Seymour Bernstein, the world’s most unlikely hero. The director is Ethan Hawke, in his documentary directing début. Bernstein is a recluse who has lived alone in the same small New York apartment for 57 years. He is also a former performance pianist, a prolific composer, and a gifted piano teacher. They met at a dinner party given by one of Bernstein’s piano students a few years ago. When Seymour learned that Hawke was to be a guest at dinner, he did a Google search to find out who he was. When Hawke talked with Seymour and learned Seymour’s story, he decided there and then that it had to be made into a film.
Two and a half years of shooting Seymour’s life spontaneously and without rehearsal have now become what Seymour considers “a masterpiece… a harmonious whole, like a Beethoven sonata.” I would agree. Although a film about classical music, and about those who make music, the film is much more. From Seymour’s perspective, the object of the documentary is to show how a passion for an art form, or for a talent of any kind, can influence the art or the talent, and life itself. The tragedy is that too many musicians can perform on the stage but, unable to bring the same discipline to their personal lives, fall apart in the practice of life.
It turns out that Seymour is more than the sum of his career, more than the extraordinarily talented musician who mastered the piano as a child, brought classical music to American troops during the Korean war, became an acclaimed concert pianist in America and abroad, and gave his last public piano performance at 52 years of age. Thereafter, he devoted himself to teaching piano, composing piano music, and nurturing new generations of pianists to do their best. The improvement in the playing of the students in his NYU master class shown in the film is palpable, even to someone as untutored in music as I.
Watching Seymour discuss his life and his work with those who knew him best, and with Hawke who had just met him, we realize that he is a thoughtful and articulate philosopher of the art of living. In his view, nurturing our talents affirms the essence of who we are. Our talents are autonomous and take on a life of their own. The more we pay attention to our talents and pursue them to the extent that we can, the greater we grow in self-dignity, self-development, and self-love. The greater the synthesis of intellect, emotional life and physicality (which all successful musicians must find), the more we become a whole person. Adhering to no organized religion, Seymour is clearly an extremely spiritual person. He believes that his “inner voice is a spiritual reservoir” which “answers questions for him, helps overcome obstacles, and tells him all he needs to know.”
The film culminates in a piano concert where Seymour plays in the rotunda of Steinway Hall in New York, his first public performance in over 35 years. He admits that, but for the documentary, he would never have given the performance. Among the pieces he plays are the Bach Cantata #106 and Brahms Opus 18 #2, pieces of music which Seymour says “reflect the deepest feelings of the human soul.” Recorded live, his piano recital will be released as a separate dvd. To prepare for the film, or to follow-up for greater detail, see the video “Ethan Hawke on his Documentary Debut ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ at 92Y.” Much of the material in this post comes from this fascinating discussion between Seymour, Ethan Hawke, and Columbia University film scholar Annette Insdorf. Watch it and you will see why the film is so seductive.