Right from the first scene, in which pianist Seymour Bernstein talks his way through his thought process for fingering a passage in a Scarlatti sonata, it’s gratifyingly clear that Ethan Hawke’s documentary portrait isn’t going to be afraid to dig seriously into music. Hawke’s own search for artistic purpose (why acting?) led him to examine the life of the pianist, a casual acquaintance who became a role model for a life devoted to art, not to the trappings of art.
“I’m not so sure that a major career is a healthy thing to embark on,” says the 88-year-old Bernstein, who, despite acclaim, retired from public performance at age 50 thanks to stage fright and a disdain for the showbiz side of the classical-music world. The concertgoer’s loss was the aspiring pianist’s gain; from the onscreen evidence here, scenes with private pupils and master classes, he’s a fantastic teacher—able to convey, graciously and encouragingly, just how details of technique (tiny dynamic nuances, articulations, weighting and voicing chords) build emotional arcs.
All in all, Bernstein is terrific company—a captivating raconteur (wait until he starts talking about his time in the army in Korea, playing recitals for soldiers on the front) and a fount of aphorisms (“Every piano is like a person. They build them the same way; they never come out the same way”). There’s plenty of music, from Bach through Rachmaninoff, in generous chunks, and you have to admire Hawke’s patience (courage, even) just to stand back, point his camera, and let the man play.
SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION Opens Fri., March 20 at Guild 45th. Rated PG. 81 minutes.