'Seymour: An Introduction': Telluride Review

Seymour: An Introduction Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Seymour: An Introduction Still - H 2014

Ethan Hawke steps behind the camera for an affectionate doc about a gifted, very private musician

A concert pianist-turned-teacher takes center stage in actor Ethan Hawke's new documentary

Ethan Hawke directs his first documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, one of the modest but genuinely pleasant surprises at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. The film is a loving portrait of Seymour Bernstein, a concert pianist turned piano teacher, whom Hawke met at a dinner party a few years ago. The actor was impressed with the humility and wisdom that Bernstein conveyed. A film was born, and IFC’s Sundance Selects (the company also behind Hawke’s indie hit, Boyhood) will distribute.

Hawke confessed to Bernstein at that dinner party that he was starting to experience severe stage fright, and Bernstein had struggled with the same fears during his performing career. That conversation led to a journey of discovery for the actor. Bernstein had won rave reviews during his performing career, but he decided to stop a few decades ago, when he turned 50. He had already begun teaching, and that became his full-time profession. One of his former students, New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman, asks Seymour if he found his true creative calling through teaching, and Bernstein confesses that he did.

Several sequences in the film depict Bernstein working with students, and these interludes show him to be critical but always supportive and giving. Two of his former students who went on to careers as prominent pianists — Joseph Smith and Kimball Gallagher  testify to his influence on them, and Bernstein’s passionate devotion to music validates their testimony. Near the end of the film, Hawke persuades Bernstein to return for a small recital at Steinway Hall in New York, and his powers appear undiminished.

Then why did he quit? Bernstein suggests that the commercial side of performing disturbed him, and he also decided that the anxiety he felt before and during a recital were simply not worth the trouble. He tells a delicious anecdote about Sarah Bernhardt, who was once approached for an autograph by a younger actress. The young actress noticed Bernhardt’s hand shaking, and she asked her idol how such a revered actress could still suffer from nervousness. Bernhardt reportedly replied, “You will get nervous when you learn how to act.”

Bernstein, who is now in his 80s, has lived in the same New York studio apartment for 57 years. He claims to savor solitude. One might want to know a little more about his personal history, but the film shies away from prying into his private life. Still, there are a few tantalizing hints. At one point Seymour recalls how much he was stung by his father’s favorite way of describing his family: “I have three daughters and a pianist.” But the film never asks any further questions about Seymour’s sexual history. Still, if this approach isn’t fully satisfying, Hawke clearly gained his subject’s confidence because of his discretion. Hawke’s film is very well crafted, tightly edited and elegantly photographed. The acute musical selections only add to our appreciation of Seymour’s selfless devotion to his art.

Production: Under the Influence Productions, Room 5 Films
Director: Ethan Hawke
Producers: Ryan Hawke, Greg Loser, Heather Joan Smith
Executive producer: Anthony Zito
Director of photography: Ramsey Fendall
Editor: Anna Gustavi

No rating, 81 minutes