Musical documentaries often feature big voices, big bands, or big personalities. Only rarely do they explore subjects that most of the general public has never seen and, more often than not, those pieces can be some of the most riveting works that film can produce. Take 2012’s Searching for Sugarman, for example, a story of a legendary musician outside of the U.S. that sings gracefully and without arrogance who finds his voice re-discovered. It’s a towering achievement and one of the finest documentaries of the past five years. Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut is a riveting look at an exemplary musician, Seymour Bernstein, who has played piano for the past half-century and produced some of the greatest classical pieces in the modern era. He is also a kind-hearted, down-to-earth, and compassionate human being that sees music as the single greatest element of the human spirit. That makes the film a special beast of its own, a deeply personal film that explores him through the lens of an actor (in Hawke) that has seen his own career follow a familiar trajectory to his subject’s. That makes the film a thoroughly engaging, wholly rewarding doc.
The film picks up in the recent years of Seymour’s life, as a retired pianist in his 80s that has lived through personal and global wars. There aren’t so much developments in the film’s narrative momentum as much as they are passionate details of a brilliant man’s career. Seymour is a fascinating man because he never boasts, never self-reflects on his own brilliance despite it being evident, and never tells others what to think or how to be. The only thing he remains assertive in is his teachings, which are often intensive but never degrading or condescending. They can just be monotonous and repetitive, but isn’t that what all musical teachings are? He’s a man that inspires loyalty and honesty in those around him, primarily because he’s achieved such greatness with frankness and a candid quality usually unseen in musicians. That may be because of his absence from the spotlight that usually follows popular musicians, considering he’s a classical pianist in New York that almost everyone could not recognize. There’s something to be said about how his apparent anonymity has influenced the development of his career.
The reason Seymour Bernstein is a terrific subject for a documentary is simple: he’s a good human being. It’s rare to see a subject with this much humility and composure. There’s a key scene that defines Seymour’s humanity: when he discusses being sent off to fight in Korea, he reminisces about playing piano and how some of the men had never heard classical music before. They had been trained to subdue any sense of feminine expression; in this case, that meant enjoying art. Seymour begins to cry and pleads for people to not fall into these societal conventions, and the scene moves immensely. The film is placed in the framework of Hawke wanting Seymour to play publicly for the first time in many years: it builds to a powerful moment near the film’s conclusion where Seymour’s melodic grace dominates the frame. Hawke remains a perfect fit for directing because of a scene involving Seymour and him discussing careers. Hawke says some of his most successful work has been his least likable stuff, and that his passionate work often gets overlooked. His debut as a director won’t be forgotten, nor will its subject.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)