REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
There are many biopics about musicians. Usually, their subjects are famous household names. “Seymour: An Introduction” involves a man, who spurned fame and fortune in favor of a simpler, but no less fulfilling life.
Once upon a time, 86-year old, Seymour Bernstein, had achieved a certain renown as a classical concert pianist with an international tour schedule. Despite his technical proficiency, Bernstein was racked with stage fright. At the age of 50, Bernstein abruptly retired from the stage.
Since then, he has maintained a monastic life in a cramped, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which is dominated by a grand piano. Rather than continuing his career as a performer, Bernstein opted to give lessons to aspiring pianists. Seeing Bernstein interacting with his students, he emerges as a kind-hearted and supportive soul. He is the antithesis of the demanding, mean-spirited music instructor, portrayed by J.K. Simmons in last year’s “Whiplash.”
The film affords Bernstein an opportunity to discuss his formative years. He grew up in a house devoid of any music. At the age of five, he heard Schubert’s “Serenade” and broke into tears. Bernstein recounts that it felt as though he, “always knew that piece.” He alludes to his strained relationship with his father. Bernstein bemoans the fact that his father used to contend, “I have three daughters and a pianist.” Bernstein makes clear that even now, he remains wounded by the recollection of this disparaging remark.
We see archival footage of Bernstein performing on the front line during the Korean War. He recounts that many of the soldiers had never heard classical music before. Bernstein contends that, just like his initial exposure to the genre, it produced tears in some of these men. This triggers a discussion about the universality of music.
When he was younger, “New York Times” writer, Michael Kimmelman, was a student of Bernstein’s. The two have remained close. Their discussion proves illuminative. Kimelman poses a probing question to his erstwhile mentor. Didn’t Bernstein have an obligation to continue share his conspicuous talent as a performer with the public? Touchingly, Bernstein responds, “I poured it into you.”
“Seymour” is directed by actor, Ethan Hawke, someone, who is considerably better known than the film’s subject. His portrayal of a newbie policeman opposite Denzel Washington, in “Training Day,” as well as role as a dad in last year’s “Boyhood” were both recognized with Academy Award nominations in the category of Best Supporting Actor. For his off-screen contributions to “Before Sunset” and Before Midnight,” Hawke shared another pair of Academy Award nominations in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay.
Hawke appears on screen to discuss how he first met Bernstein. Hawke recounted that he had been experiencing his own battle with stage fright. He met Bernstein at a dinner party. As detailed by Hawke, Bernstein had a transformative effect on him. Hawke’s abiding affection for Bernstein pervades every frame of the film.
This is not Hawke’s debut as a director. In 2002, he helmed the little seen indie, “Chelsea Walls.” It was a critical and commercial bomb. With “Seymour,” Hawke has redeemed his earlier fiasco. He demonstrates a definite talent as a director. It will be interesting to see whether Hawke can achieve similar success with a film in which he does not have such a close personal relationship with the protagonist.
“Seymour” ends on a moving note. Circa 2012, after a decades-long hiatus from public performances, Bernstein is shown providing a mini-concert in the intimate setting of Steinway Hall on Manhattan’s 57th Street. Before a convocation of enthusiasts, Bernstein sits down at the piano. As a horse-drawn carriage passes in the background, he provides a spirited rendition of classical music.
The film ends with an expertly-constructed montage of various other musicians. Like Bernstein, each of them is joyfully lost in their performances. Bernstein provides the film with a great closing line, “I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky.”
Some will proclaim that this film is a celebration of one man’s love of music. They are correct. However, more broadly, “Seymour” is an ode to individual choice.
***1/2 PG (for some mild thematic elements) 81 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.