SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION – The Review
You might assume that music takes center stage given the subject of SEYMOUR, but Ethan Hawke’s look at the reclusive concert pianist is so much more. Composer Seymour Bernstein is the focus of SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION. Like the title would suggest, we briefly get to know the journey of a man who studied piano, went over-seas to war, composed musical arrangements, and then suddenly stopped performing publicly due to crippling stage fright. But that is what’s so great about Hawke’s documentary debut. Like a classically trained pianist who effortlessly can glide his fingers across keys without a single misstep, Hawke guides the film across multiple subjects, bringing into question music’s true purpose, finding true happiness, and the pros and cons of becoming famous for your art.
Seymour Bernstein may be one of the greatest pianists in the world and yet most of us might not have ever heard of him had it not been for Hawke’s discovery. This look into the brilliant mind of Seymour is consistently fascinating due to the central character’s knack for thoughtful musings about life. He comes across as calm as a Buddhist monk – assured and yet direct in his convictions. Seymour’s philosophical beliefs are a result of years living as a reclusive and talented artist in New York City, and his ability to impart lessons or provoke questions is just as fascinating as his musical abilities. His countless hours behind the piano, studying music, and teaching students in both classes and workshops, have shaped Seymour into an introspective but thoughtful zen-like mentor. He seems like a grandfather figure that you immediately feel connected to – someone you could have known your entire life.
Hawke presents the film in an intimate and no-nonsense fashion. His focus is on the words and music of the subject, not on the technical aspects of the film process. Some might confuse this with laziness as a director, but SEYMOUR lends itself to minimalism, not unlike that of Hawke’s friend and frequent collaborator Richard Linklater. There’s not necessarily a restraint to how Hawke approaches his subject as much as there’s room for the conversations to naturally evolve. Personal stories about his time in Korea and comments about Beethoven’s classical compositions flow organically, building to a final performance in front of a small audience introduced by Hawke. Unfortunately both parties feel insecure and out of their element during the final concert, leading one to think that the film might have been better off on a quieter note than staging a forced grand finale.
Ethan Hawke may be known for balancing arthouse projects like BEFORE MIDNIGHT and BOYHOOD with mainstream fare like THE PURGE and DAYBREAKERS, but in his discussions with Seymour we learn of his desire for something more. He calls into question whether acting is where he’s meant to truly find his own artistic fulfillment. By placing himself in the film Hawke represents many of us who watch Seymour talk about his passion and ask the same question of ourselves. The director isn’t placing himself in the film as way to satiate his own ego – like some might say of director Michael Moore – but to open the conversation to the viewer to discuss further. SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION may serve as exactly that given its succinct 80 minute runtime and its somewhat brief look at the life of Seymour Bernstein, but this intro is more than just a serviceable appetizer – it’s in fact chockfull of juicy material that will nourish those looking for more than just a beginner’s piano lesson.
Overall rating 4 out of 5
SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION opens at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cine on April 10