I find it rather amusing that the first great film to deal so centrally with a musician’s craft, etiquette, temperament and pedagogy since last year’s beloved “Whiplash” is “Seymour: An Introduction,” a quiet, melodic, incredibly meditative documentary that stands almost directly opposite Damien Chazelle’s fiery two-hander. Concerning virtuoso pianist Seymour Bernstein, the documentary is less about one specific contribution or element of Bernstein’s, but instead meanders cyclically about its subject providing insight into his past, his instructional techniques, his fear of live performing, and his beliefs about composing, as well as his convincing argument that talent is its own reward. Through a waltzing progression, at a pace that many may find distractingly lullaby-like, our virtual handshake with Seymour is indifferent to casual documentary construction by reflecting the tendencies of our introducer, Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke, flexing his documentarian muscles for the very first time.
Framed by Hawke himself mere moments before Seymour’s first live performance in several decades before Hawke’s small theater group, the actor describes his own first interaction with Seymour at a mutual friend’s dinner party which thrust Hawke into a time of self-dissection, trying to grasp his own art form more firmly and in a similar manner to how Seymour understands his own. This documentary extends well beyond that first interaction, but still feels aptly introductory for both viewers and Hawke himself, thus blending the audience and the filmmaker into a singular entity conversing with and absorbing the great knowledge amassed by Bernstein. Utterly without pretension, by Hawke or Bernstein, this unusual, personal documentary is a beauteous delight treating a purposefully reserved artist to a rightfully low-lit spotlight.
I say low-lit because of the affectionately soft feeling the film presents, almost constituted by a finely feathered edge and accentuated by the lovely piano score. Seymour isn’t begging to be thrust front and center so Hawke finds a way to position him there whilst still allowing the musician to be in full control of his own story. Seymour is a tender and genuine individual, there’s no arguing his being or his talents, but he’s also shy, despite a wicked wit and an altogether friendly demeanor. Bernstein had the potential to register up with the greatest of pianists – he’s considered a contemporary of concert thespian Glenn Gould – but his distaste for commercialism, whether it be from overpopularism or on-sale CD’s at Starbucks, coupled with ravenous stage fright relegated him to complacent reclusiveness, tucked away in his single room apartment on the Upper West Side where he finds solace in private lessons or the rare group lecture class. Almost forty years his junior, there’s a wealth of belief and comfort separating the expert pianist from the beyond fascinated Hawke, a high-profile screen actor who has been acting in films since he was 15. There’s an immediate and inherent contrast between the under-the-radar Bernstein and the instantly recognizable Hawke who touts a number of career accolades (hell, he was just nominated for Best Supporting Actor this past year), but to Hawke’s credit he builds the film to ultimately encompass and exemplify Seymour, not himself; this is no vanity project, but it is a definitely an ‘Ethan Hawke film.’
Ethan Hawke has directed films before, he helmed “Chelsea Walls” in 2001 and then five years later adapted “The Hottest State” from his own novel, but neither garnered much attention nor much praise. It’s amazing to me that he was able to get either of those films made to begin with since his schedule is always so jam-packed – and remember that even during his less strenuous years he was still shooting segments of “Boyhood” and getting together with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy to work on the “Before” trilogy. But it must be because of his fervent work calendar that he’s able to accomplish so much, or it could be because of his own suppressed insecurity, that and a deep passion for his craft; a blend of these emotional states has to be the reason he was so drawn to Seymour given the elder’s profound knowledge of music and obscure desire to remain almost totally anonymous. That’s ultimately what Hawke is seeking to discover for himself through the making of this documentary, and it’s incredible that that is able to resonate beside Seymour himself – an adorable and endlessly interesting centerpiece.
With that fascination and passion, Hawke also brings a tantalizing appreciation for naturalism and the beauty therein, highly reminiscent of his friend and regular collaborator, Richard Linklater. It goes without saying how paramount this is to the overall success of “Seymour” and how Hawke is able to stabilize his interest into a film that’s so relaxing only exacerbates his natural talent as a documentarian. Thinking in a Seymour-ian sense, Hawke manages to fit into Bernstein’s belief structure while operating steadily outside of it: His fame does not diminish his drive or his passion, but he’s cognizant of his abilities enough to be content with himself.
And having worked with such a wide variety of talented craftsmen definitely helps as well, for Hawke’s got an admirable filmic eye. He films Seymour conversing with colleagues through coffee shop windows, discussing the merits of various Steinway pianos, managing lectures in giant auditoriums, and assisting aspiring pianists in the confines of Seymour’s little home. There’s a really beautiful sequence where we see Seymour transform his living room, where his piano lives and where he holds his private lessons, into his bedroom. The care Hawke extends to his subject is really charming and infectious; this is one of those documentaries that’ll make you fall in love with the subject in a way that the documentarian does already. And to that note, there is of course an aura of heavy reverence; Hawke’s adoration and envy for Seymour is overflowing, and if Seymour was not as lovely a human being as we do discover him to be, this would lead to the documentary’s collapse. Instead, it’s simply a minor criticism of a wholly touching and absorbing endeavor.
While the film does build to Seymour’s performance for Hawke & Co., there comes a realization well before then that just because Seymour hasn’t put himself up on a stage in front of thousands of people in almost forty years, every little moment he shares with another person, whether it be a student or a friend or Ethan Hawke, requires some small level of performance. There is always something to be taught, and always something to be learned. His vigor for thought and newness – his status as an octogenarian notwithstanding – is radiant and expansive, as the film feels thoroughly coated in a layer of intellectual curiosity. This is a stimulating feature – part investigative documentary and part philosophical curio – that connects these two divisive artists as colleagues in thought and in art. It’s a ‘Sunday afternoon’ kind of film – unobtrusive and quiet, though it will resound for many, especially those who have ever found friendship in a mentor figure or ever attempted to play the piano.
Though it would be ironically un-Seymour-ian for the film to eventually gain commercial success, garner awards attention and cast Seymour into the same kind of public stance that Ethan Hawke has lived in for the majority of his professional life, “Seymour: An Introduction” does deserve all of those things. For a showbiz icon who has never shied away from experimentation or taking risks, the four time Academy Award nominee (twice for acting, twice for writing) could find himself in the running for a fifth, but this time for Best Documentary Feature. This quiet film speaks volumes; a rewarding and gratifying introduction indeed.
Review by Mike Murphy
“Seymour: An Introduction” is now playing at the Kendall Square Cinema in Boston and will soon be available on VOD.