Seymour Bernstein does not want to be a famous pianist. Or, rather, he chose quite consciously not to become a famous pianist many years ago, on the stage of Alice Tully Hall in New York City. Despite glowing reviews, the overwhelming anxiety of performance was too much for him and he gave up playing in public. He retreated to his Manhattan apartment to teach and compose. He had been living there for almost 60 years, still practicing his craft alongside his students, when Ethan Hawke began making a movie about him.
Seymour: An Introduction is a profile of a brilliant musician to whom most of us really do need an introduction. Hawke shows Bernstein at home, practicing the piano and instructing a handful of accomplished younger musicians. The actor-turned-filmmaker interviews him about his past, using some archival images to underline his potential success and featuring a straightforward montage of sheet music covers to show his prolific endeavors as a composer. Old students and friends are interviewed either in Seymour’s home or at a coffee shop, where they reminisce about the way the aging sage helped them find direction. It’s not exactly a revolution in structure, and it doesn’t have to be.
Hawke allows the pianist to contextualize the themes of his own life and then shapes the film around him. Fear of performance is a major point of departure. Bernstein remembers watching Glenn Gould, marveling at the Canadian virtuoso’s insistence that he sit almost impossibly high up on the piano bench. He thought that Gould’s strange, contorted style must have resulted entirely from nerves. The realization that this may have been a more cynical performance style never occurred to Bernstein, and it surprised him. As a counter-example he tells a story about Sarah Bernhardt, who once told an admirer that one cannot be a great actress without being scared.
Bernstein has other opinions about Gould, too. He’s not a fan of his performances of the Goldberg Variations, the monumental Johann Sebastian Bach work that Gould cut down to size by ignoring much of its notation. Part of Bernstein’s performance anxiety has to do with fearful reverence for the music itself and its great composers. This has turned him into a bit of a mystic. He takes Hawke to visit his friend Andrew Harvey, a leading figure in the world of mysticism. They discuss how music is much more than a form of entertainment — it’s a conduit for greater things. “Through its language we become one with the stars,” Bernstein relates.
If Hawke doesn’t quite replicate that mystic revelation for most of the film, that may be a side effect of the introductory nature of the project. However, in the final sequence of Seymour everything comes together with a beautiful sense of musical rapture. As has become standard in the genre of “lost musician discovered” documentaries (Standing in the Shadows of Motown; El Gusto), it ends with a concert. In one of the most precisely edited sequences of any documentary this year, Bernstein’s rendition of a Schubert piece in front of a crowd is intercut with footage of him playing the same piece at home and talking Hawke through its intricacies. Yet the flow of the music is not interrupted. The two pieces, the intellectual practicing at home and the virtuoso performing in public, are seamlessly incorporated into one transcendent moment. It’s a master class made of cinema.
This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 8, 2014.