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‘Seymour: An Introduction’: Pianist brings out best in Ethan Hawke


The remarkable if unorthodox life and art of the classically trained pianist Seymour Bernstein is explored with acute feeling and quiet tenderness in Ethan Hawke’s terrific biographical portrait, “Seymour: An Introduction.”

Coming off of his superb one-two performances for Richard Linklater in “Before Midnight” and “Boyhood,” Hawke continues to work at a creative high level. He demonstrates a rapport and openness with his subject that proves exceptionally affecting.

This is Hawke’s third feature film as a director and his first documentary. The origins of the project developed out of conflict and uncertainty in Hawke’s own life about examining why people do what they do. Hawke traces the outline of Bernstein’s life as an inquiry into art, creativity and perspective.

Hawke is a secondary presence who cedes the floor to Bernstein and expressively utilizes a warm, intimate camera to capture qualities that are ineffable. The movie is shaped around a fundamental question of why the clearly gifted musician gave up his highly promising classical career to focus his attention as a teacher, composer and philosopher.

A prodigy who got a late professional start because of his war service in Korea, Bernstein studied with the great English master Clifford Curzon and made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969. That same year, he gave a starmaking performance in New York. Despite the rave reviews, he confided to a friend: “If you truly love me, you’ll never let me play in public again.”

Bernstein dealt with a crippling stage fright and anxiousness that caused him, at age 50 in 1977, to give up playing publicly entirely. Hawke intertwines archival material with a series of conversations of Bernstein with the art critic Michael Kimmelman (a former student) and prized disciples Joseph Smith and Kimball Gallagher.

Moving from a book-lined one-bedroom apartment where Bernstein has lived for six decades to a public space where Bernstein gives master classes, the movie captures his natural and direct teaching style, his understated grace and exceptional humor (“You’re not allowed to play better than me,” he tells one young woman).

At times Hawke is perhaps a little too protective of his subject. The one aspect missing is Bernstein’s emotional life, family and romantic partners. The balance is touching and pure (a scene about his memory of playing on the front lines in Korea is absolutely devastating). In a film he made as a younger man, Bernstein observes that music is a “language of feeling.”

This film makes that tangible and complete.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Sundance Selects presents a documentary directed by Ethan Hawke. Rated PG (for some mild thematic elements). Running time: 82 minutes. Opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre and Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park.