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'Seymour': A Loving Portrait Of An Acclaimed Classical Pianist


This is FRESH AIR. Seymour Bernstein is an 88-year-old piano teacher in New York. But until he was 50, he was an acclaimed concert pianist. His unusual career is the subject of "Seymour: An Introduction," a new documentary by the well-known actor Ethan Hawke. Our critic-at-large John Powers has this review.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: As long as we're blaming baby boomers for everything, I'd like to add something to the inventory of grievances. It's the recent explosion of what we might call gerontological cinema, a pandering world of "Bucket Lists" and "Exotic Marigold Hotels" designed to reassure the zillions of gray-haired boomers that they're still alive and can still act like they're young. For an antidote, I prescribe "Seymour: An Introduction," an inspiring new documentary by the actor Ethan Hawke.

It's a loving portrait of his friend and mentor Seymour Bernstein, an acclaimed classical pianist who quit a successful concert career at the age of 50 to become a piano teacher. He's a quintessential New Yorker who embodies the wisdom of age. Bernstein was well into his 80s when they shot the film, a puckish man with an unabashed love of music. Keeping himself mostly in the background, Hawke interlaces footage of his subject at work with scenes in which Bernstein, a gifted raconteur, tells the story of his artistic life - how he came from a non-musical Newark family, how as a small boy, he heard Schubert's "Serenade" and wept, how at 6, he begged for a piano. By 15, he was teaching, and before long, he was on the concert trail. He played big halls, won admiring reviews and even had a patron - a spiritualist millionairess who paid to launch him in Europe and put him up in a huge house in Scarsdale where she had gifts delivered to his door every day.

Although he would appear to have had it made, he always hated the commercial side of things and was tormented by a profound anxiety at public performance. And so he just stopped. You see, Bernstein's relationship to his music is inseparable from his sense of himself, as he learned early on.


SEYMOUR BERNSTEIN: When I was around the age of 15, I remember that I became aware that when my practicing went well, everything else in life seemed to be harmonized by that. When my practicing didn't go well, I was out of sorts with people, with my parents. So I concluded that the real essence of who we are resides in our talent, in whatever talent and there is.

POWERS: Ethan Hawke's talent is acting, and it's his own agonized relationship to it that first drew him to Bernstein and led him to make this movie. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. I'd long found Hawke slightly pretentious, maybe because years before James Franco became a Renaissance man, he'd already tried it, publishing novels, directing off-Broadway plays, directing films, starring in movies and appearing on stage at Lincoln Center where he was a terrific Bakunin in Tom Stoppard's "Coast Of Utopia." Now, ever since first making his name in "Dead Poets Society," Hawke has been a seeker. And in Bernstein, he finds a real-life version of Robin Williams's teacher in that film, the one who shows you the way.

Bernstein is a model of how you sustain creative passion over decades and decades. Not that he's some sort of self-help swami dispensing mantras and bromides. You can tell that from watching him teach, at which he's obviously brilliant. As a meticulous artist, he believes in hard work. That's the only way to get good. At the same time, he takes his students through their lessons with an upbeat gentleness that's no less encouraging for being rigorous. J. K. Simmons wouldn't win the Oscar playing him.

Everything Bernstein does is steeped in his love of music. The film opens with him working on his fingering of a Scarlatti sonata and ends with his first public recital in 35 years. One of the best scenes comes when he tests a group of pianos before a student recital. Every piano is like a person, he says, showing his knowledge of both. They build them the same way, but they never come out the same.

"Seymour: An Introduction" takes its name from a Salinger story, and the title, though cute, is apt. This tactful thing was only an introduction, not the whole story. While we do see Bernstein living alone with his Steinway in the cramped New York apartment he's occupied for 60 years, Hawke reveals almost nothing about this very private man's personal life. If he's had love affairs, kids or breakdowns, we don't learn. Gossip isn't what Hawke is after. No, what he's after is no less than the secret of a happy, satisfying artistic life - heck, of a happy, satisfying life in general - and the delightful Bernstein seems to have figured it out. It's not hard, really. Lead with your heart, Seymour tells us, then practice, practice, practice.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is TV and film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. On the next FRESH AIR, killer whales and Sea World. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.