A few years ago, before a pair of starring roles in two major Richard Linklater movies provided him with a jolt of career-affirming success, Ethan Hawke was having a crisis of confidence. “I’ve been struggling recently to find why it is that I do what I do,” the actor confesses to a crowd of friends at the beginning of the new film he’s directed. But Hawke isn’t there to talk about his problems—he’s there to shine a light on the reclusive 86-year-old piano teacher who solved them. Seymour Bernstein has been training concert pianists from inside his musty Upper West Side apartment for decades, and though Hawke isn’t training to play a recital at Carnegie Hall, Seymour: An Introduction makes it clear that he’s learned as much from Bernstein as any of the octogenarian’s pupils.
Hawke’s first documentary is a perfect movie for a gray Sunday afternoon, a gentle and loving tribute to a man so anachronistically convinced that talent is its own reward that the film might soon serve as our only proof that people like him ever existed. A living legend without a Wikipedia page, Bernstein values his solitude the way that others might their spouse, and Hawke’s movie is a model of how to portray a man who’s at peace with himself.
Seymour unfolds like a Jewish Jiro Dreams of Sushi—Bernstein may look like your average NYC grandpa, but he lives like a monk and talks like a guru. (Misleading title aside, the film is less of an introduction to Bernstein than a lesson in the value of his teachings.) Hawke is happy to reflect the unforced gentleness of his subject, spending most of this modest movie unobtrusively observing Bernstein at work. And though the film eventually builds to his first public performance in 35 years, it doesn’t feel like Hawke is manufacturing drama for his subject so much as paying tribute to a friend.
The old axiom that true artists shouldn’t chase fame, applause or money can certainly sound trite, but Bernstein will make you a believer. “The most important thing is an even pulse, a pulse that never stops,” he says, and at no point during Seymour does that note ring false.
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