'Itzhak': Film Review | Hamptons 2017

Doesn't hit all the right notes.

Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman is profiled in Alison Chernick's documentary, due to be broadcast in 2018 on PBS' 'American Masters.'


Alison Chernick's documentary about famed violinist Itzhak Perlman does a thorough job of showcasing the venerable musician's engaging personality and deep passion for music. Unfortunately, Itzhak proves less successful in biographical terms, making it more suitable for Perlman's longtime fans than those who have only a cursory knowledge of his life and career. Having recently received its world premiere as the opening night film of the Hamptons International Film Festival, the documentary will be broadcast in 2018 on PBS' American Masters.

Itzhak briefly relates the story of the violinist's early years, including his being afflicted with polio and making a breakthrough appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was just 13 years old. (Discussing it now, Perlman is smart enough to realize he wasn't booked simply because he was a talented young violinist.) But the film seems more interested in providing an impressionist, fly-on-the-wall portrait.  

We thus see Perlman sharing a take-out Chinese meal with fellow musicians Evgeny Kissin and Mischa Maiskey, which is just like any friendly social gathering except that the conversation includes such questions as "Did you ever meet Heifetz?" and the participants play gorgeous music together afterward. Another scene features Perlman drinking wine with Alan Alda, who tells Perlman that he also suffered from polio as a child.

And so it goes, with other segments showing Perlman undergoing a rigorous search while going through airport security, rehearsing for a guest appearance at a Billy Joel concert, receiving various awards, teaching classes filled with eager young students and performing the National Anthem at a Mets game.

Despite its many engaging moments, Itzhak will likely prove frustrating for viewers desiring more information. It's fun to see Perlman explain to his dinner guests that moo shu chicken involves pancakes, but it would have been far more satisfying to learn in greater depth about his early years spent in Israel, his difficulties dealing with his illness, his relationships with fellow musicians, etc. At one point, he tells someone that the piece for which he receives the most requests is the theme from Schindler’s List. That neither the film's director Steven Spielberg nor its composer John Williams is on hand to deliver observations about Perlman's contribution seems a shame.

Long before the film is over, you'll have come to adore both Perlman and his wife Toby, whose love and devotion to her husband shine through every moment she's onscreen. It's just a shame that you won't have learned more about him as well.

Production: American Masters Pictures
Director/producer: Alison Chernick 
Executive producers: Michael Kantor, Penny Lieberman
Directors of photography: Daniel Kedem, Christopher Gallo, Mikko Timonen, Chris Dapkins
Editor: Helen Yum
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival

82 min.