Movie Review: Seymour – An Introduction

Ethan Hawke steps behind the camera to direct a lovely, purposefully small movie that gently dusts the edges of existential angst as it animates the life of pianist Seymour Bernstein

Seymour: An Introduction

Featuring: Seymour Bernstein

Directed by: Ethan Hawke

Running time: 82 minutes

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

By Jay Stone

Seymour Bernstein was a celebrated concert pianist in the 1950s and ‘60s who toured the world to glorious reviews, but suffered from both stage fright and something deeper: an existential crisis of sorts. He retired from public performances when he was 50 and has become a piano teacher in New York City.

“I’m not sure a musical career is a healthy thing to embark upon,” he says now.

One of the highlights of Seymour: An Introduction, a small and lovely documentary about Bernstein, is watching him work with young musicians. Their playing sounds wonderful to amateur ears, but Bernstein coaches them about the lightness of their touch and the way their fingers glide between octaves, or the use of the soft pedal on the piano, and we begin to realize the subtleties that lie between competence and greatness. Watching him at work, you begin to grasp the connection between talent — that innate ability to make art — and craft, the hard work necessary to harness it.

That is just part of the movie, however. Seymour: An Introduction is the also title of a J. D. Salinger novella whose companion piece — called Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters — begins with a Taoist tale about a man name Kao who was so clever a judge of horses that he had it in him to judge something better than horses. Similarly, Bernstein has it in him to teach something more than the piano, which he was why he was chosen by the actor Ethan Hawke, director of the film.

Hawke appears in several sequences to explain that he is suffering from a similar crisis — stage fright, existential doubts about the value of his work — and happened to run into Bernstein at a dinner party. Hawke says he is trying to play his life as beautifully as Bernstein plays the piano, to balance his career successes and the deeper satisfactions of his art, which are rarely the same. Bernstein has become his adviser in these matters.

The result is a lovely, purposefully small movie that just dusts the edges of many deep concerns that Bernstein, now in his mid-80s, is still wrestling with. “The real essence of who we are rests in our talent,” he says, but he feels justified in abandoning his public displays of it (the film ends with a small public concert of a Schumann piece that shows Bernstein is still a piano master.)

As a director, Hawke has a good eye for telling moments. At one stage, Bernstein talks about how he has lived in the same one-room apartment in Manhattan for 57 years, and we see what must be his daily ritual for folding up his sofa bed and tucking the blankets and pillows into a box, preparing the room for daytime use.

By way of illustrating Bernstein’s philosophies of making music, there is also a long sequence showing Glenn Gould entering a recording studio, sitting at his cut-down kitchen chair and playing in a hunched-over posture that is all wrong. Bernstein suspects that Gould’s eccentricities were partly for show, and adds that when he hears his music, he doesn’t hear Bach; he hears Glenn Gould.

It’s an interesting critique that puts Gould into a different school, that of jazz pianist. No one ever complains that, say, they’re hearing Oscar Peterson instead of George Gershwin. Indeed, hearing Peterson — or Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans — is the point.

Seymour: An Introduction doesn’t pursue this line of thinking, but like the best teachers, it sparks the ideas behind it. We don’t learn a whole lot about Bernstein’s personal life — does he have a partner? Who are his friends? — but we learn about his essence. In Salinger’s tale, Kao “sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at.” Ethan Hawke turns out to be a pretty good judge of horses himself.



User Rating

4 (1 Votes)



Seymour: An Introduction: Ethan Hawke directed this documentary about Seymour Bernstein, an 80something piano teacher in New York City whose gentle and telling philosophies of music, talent and life have made him Hawke’s adviser in negotiating the celebrity life. A small wise gem. 4 stars out of 5 -- Jay Stone

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