Seymour: An Introduction

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It’s early on in this documentary about an octogenarian piano teacher in New York, that you’ll wish you could slap J.K. Simmons in the face for the way he treated Miles Teller in Whiplash. The way Seymour Bernstein teaches kids to play piano, is how every teacher should be. This is a loving tribute from Ethan Hawke, who directed this documentary.

Hawke was impressive in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Boyhood recently, and he steps nicely behind the camera this time. Although this is a bit too gentle at times, too adoring and a little low-key…it’s a character you’ll be glad you got to know.

It was 57 years earlier when Seymour moved into the same apartment he lives in today, and he was getting raved reviews for his performances. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. His stage fright and nerves became crippling, and he stopped performing and started teaching.

As a music lover, just listening to Seymour talk about his love of music is infectious. He shares a story about being a child and playing a piece by Schubert and crying. His mom came downstairs to ask why he was crying. He said, “I’ve never heard such a beautiful piece of music.”

How wonderful is that?

I’m a music lover that’s only cried twice when it came to powerful pieces. Once when I was five and heard Vivaldi on a segment Sesame Street did about a flower growing New York City. The second time was as an adult, during a performance by jazz-bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding.

All music fans should be able to relate with powerful pieces that move us.

The stories he tells are wonderful as well. He got one pianist knighted by writing the Queen a letter. Another time, in Korea, he talked his way into performing for the troops. That ended up being on the front lines. You go from joy listening to him tell the story, to sadness.

It was interesting listening to him dissect the music of fellow piano virtuoso Glenn Gould, an eccentric player I knew nothing about. There’s nothing more enjoyable than watching a documentary and learning about characters we knew nothing about before.

Some of the edits were predictable – stock war footage, various genres of musicians and dancers performing – but those shots still worked.

It was a nice touch to hear from some of the students, and you’ll love watching a teacher that loves what he’s doing. It rubs off on the students. You wish all teachers could be like this.

At 90 minutes, I was surprised that it still felt like it was dragging a little at the end. And I could’ve done without some of the goofy mysticism, but hey…that’s part of him.

The film was nicely shot, and reminded me of Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) piece Super Mench from last year.

You can’t go wrong with a soundtrack that gives us Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Brahms.

It gets 3 stars out of 5.

2 comments

  • georgi Gordon

    It was lovely. One thing tho…I got that he walked away because he became at ease with his fear and felt he had walked thru to move on…but regardless it was special. Using the stock footage with the contracting sound track really worked. Ethan Hawke was a sweet and powerful director like Seymour explained only depressing the piano key half way and experiencing softness.

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