“Seymour: An Introduction” opens with 87-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein figuring out a difficult passage of music. Playing the same few bars over and over, he has to strategize, figure out where he needs to put his fingers and when, to make the difficult transition from this chord to that. Finally, after a lot of trial and error, he gets it right.
To the casual listener of the final performance, of course, it might sound like the music just flows out of Bernstein’s fingers. But, of course, it takes thousands of hours of practice to make that music “flow.” The documentary “Seymour” makes a powerful and poignant case for the hard, unglamorous work that goes into making great art, and that making that your life’s work makes for a life well-lived.
“Seymour” was directed by actor Ethan Hawke, who befriended Bernstein after the two were placed next to each other at a dinner party. As Hawke explains it on-camera, he confided to Bernstein that he was having a mid-career bout of stage fright, and couldn’t figure out how to stop being nervous. Bernstein replied wryly that most performers ought to be more nervous when they go on stage.
Bernstein would know. A talented concert pianist who received great reviews from the New York Times and others, he was so anxious about being on stage that he finally walked away from performing at the age of 50, devoting his life to teaching music. Challenged by one of his former students if he had a responsibility to continue performing, Bernstein responds, “I poured it into you.”
The film is structured almost exclusively around interviews with Bernstein, whether he’s talking with Hawke, talking to his current and former students, or looking directly into the camera. His music and his life seem completely integrated with each other; he even speaks like he plays: thoughtfully, calmly, compassionately, perceptively.
“Seymour” moves around in time, shifting from Bernstein’s interactions with young students today to his memories of growing up and serving in the Army, where he would play concerts on the front lines in South Korea for soldiers who had never heard classical music before.
The film builds towards a concert organized by Hawke, Bernstein’s first public performance in over 35 years. Hawke intercuts it with Bernstein playing the same piece alone in his living room. The playing is just as beautiful in both environments, suggesting that, for Bernstein, being recognized and successful for your art is less important than simply making art as best you can, and working always to make it better.
“Seymour: An Introduction” is a too-brief visit with a fascinating man who has much to say about life for musicians and non-musicians alike.
If you liked the movie when you saw it in a theater, but felt its 84-minute running time was too little time to spend with Bernstein, you should get the DVD. The main bonus feature is 45 minutes of that first public concert, with Bernstein playing and talking about his work.
As he finishes the last note of the last song, barely audible, he stares down at his fingers for what seems like an eternity. Then he raises his head and accepts the applause.