A midlife crisis is often a road leading to some predictable destination: a car lot, a plastic surgeon’s office, a seedy motel. Classical musician Seymour Bernstein’s took him in a less-traveled direction. At age 50 and without telling anyone, the New York concert pianist arranged his own farewell performance and then quietly stepped out of the spotlight, leaving behind a rising and critically celebrated career in favor of a humble, private life dedicated to music education and composition.
Directed by actor Ethan Hawke — who reveals that his own midcareer misgivings, coupled with an influential encounter with Bernstein at a dinner party, inspired the film — Seymour: An Introduction is a nearly pitch-perfect documentary that’s equal parts music-appreciation master class and loving ode to the sensitive and charming guru. We first meet the now 87-year-old piano teacher in the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment he’s called home for the past 57 years. He walks us through both his kitchen and a piece of music on his piano, explaining a passage involving a hard-to-reach octave as he replays it with increasing dexterity.
From there, the film effortlessly slurs glimpses into Bernstein’s monastic personal life and colorful past — which includes an obsessively doting patron and a tour on the frontlines of the Korean War — with enlightening musical moments and philosophical musings. Some of the film’s most revealing scenes, though, come from a conversation between Bernstein and Michael Kimmelman, a pupil turned New York Times writer. The deferential but astute critic gently prods his mentor on his abandoned ambitions, offering the film’s most discerning examination of the man’s motivations and eloquently articulated beliefs.
Equally adept at tickling the ivories and waxing poetic, Bernstein rhapsodically imparts his own near-religious reverence for classical music to both his varied assortment of students and the viewer. And aside from a couple of mystical digressions that sometimes muddy the waters, this tenderly crafted profile is an elucidating and occasionally transporting moviegoing experience. By the time the film reaches its stirring climax, you’ll be wishing for an encore to this insightful, inspiring Introduction.