Review: 'Seymour,' look at one man's passion for music

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Artists of all persuasions should find much to relate to in Ethan Hawke's "Seymour: An Introduction," a documentary look at the classical pianist and master teacher Seymour Bernstein.

Hawke seems to have stumbled onto Bernstein at a dinner party. Wrestling with mid-career insecurities, he took counsel from Bernstein, an acclaimed concert pianist who essentially retired from performing at the age of 50 and turned to teaching instead.

Bernstein is certainly unique. Now in his 80s, he's lived in the same one-bedroom apartment in New York City for five decades. He enjoys solitude, yet has taught a steady stream of younger concert pianists over the years. Hawke brings in a number of those students to discuss Bernstein and the general love of music.

The great joy of the film, whether you know piano or not, is watching Bernstein teach. Realize, the people he's guiding are already mightily accomplished, so he goes far beyond basics, subtly instilling a sense of dynamics, or showing someone how to breathe and hold their body. He breaks music down in small segments, focusing on minute — but perfectly clear — details.

His love for the art, his sustained wonder at the beauty of sound, is apparent. His life beyond art, not so much. Bernstein apparently quit performing because of something like stage fright and the question of whether he deprived classical fans of his abilities lingers over the film. But we're told little past the basics — he was in the Korean War, played for troops on the front lines, then later toured the world, then quit performing. And? Was he ever in love, has he lived alone all this time, does he have strong feelings about anything other than music?

Still, the man is fully admirable as a musician and teacher, and lovely to watch in both capacities. It's an inevitably elite world he lives — nobody here seems to be struggling to pay any bills — and the film is filled with somewhat rarefied discourse that's a long way from the street. But it's also heartening to see a man so enthralled with his muse passing on his passion with such gentle wisdom.

'Seymour: An Introduction'


Rated PG for some mild thematic elements

Running time: 84 minutes