Watching and listening to Seymour: An Introduction is like going out to eat with a foodie. You might not know what’s best for you, but you’ll get there.
In a scene with two close friends, pianist Seymour Bernstein laments on the American narrative of the artist. People want to hear stories of stars born with talent, craft is boring. Bernstein gave up performance and concerts decades ago, it’s like if Shut Up and Play The Hits was made with an interview 50 years after the final concert. Now, he’s a teacher.
In other documentaries of creative genius, the subject is mined for wisdom. Bernstein is excited to share his own with director Ethan Hawke. “One of the most important things is to always have a pulse”, he says to his student Jiyang Chen. What sets Seymour: An Introduction apart is that many of the interviews are done people who know him well enough to disagree with him: his friends and pupils. They get quotes out of him we could never, we’re more like his pupils; we can learn to love him and the things he teaches.
One of the most tender moments captures Bernstein holding down one of his students shoulders, which have started to roll forward from their “knightly posture” during the moments of great musical passion. Bernstein shows his pupils the great emotional depths of music, but it his profession to not let them drown in it.
Hawke and his friendship with Bernstein is very much part of the movie. As part of Hawke’s show, he teaches on stage before his concert, without pulling punches. The audience sees a vibrant, strong encouraging teacher. Some of us may groan hearing his merciless criticisms, but some of us will keep eating our popcorn. His other students watch with intent from backstage, sympathizing and knowing they are next.
Hawke thinks Bernstein’s lifestyle is a monk’s to the piano, as he shows us throughout the movie. We see his life at angles, times and shades. We see Bernstein’s precision in shape and time, when he makes his bed and his food. He’s authentic and deliberate through every note of his life and that is inspiring.
“The most important thing for music teachers is to inspire and encourage, not just in music but in all aspects of life,” Bernstein says. His father used to say he had three daughters and a pianist; Bernstein also wishes he could’ve been known as a son. His piano playing is a craft, but the feelings that come through are the product of a full life.
For Bernstein, music is zen, and he needs more of it to cushion old age. New York always looks overcast and far away. Days are getting long for Bernstein and he’s losing his perception of them. His curtains are always drawn, but his apartment looks homey. We only see him outdoors and on the New York streets once, when he stops to pet a dog. He puts his remaining life into his piano but that isn’t how we’ll learn about him best. That’s in the topography of his forehead and back, and the motions of his pedaling feet.
The narrative feels disjointed, but music ties the knots. In the final scenes, his piano playing makes up the whole movie you’re watching. The film builds up context to the final concert which makes an already emotional (in attendees’ shaking mouths) experience, personal too.
There’s nothing mystical or inaccessible about Bernstein. His bliss is because he is extraordinarily practical. A long time ago, his piano playing became his living, so it became his life. Eight hours a day. That’s not talent for music, that’s talent for work. You’ll stay through the credits just to hear a few more moments of Bernstein. You can hear Schumann at any time, but you might never hear Bernstein again.