The title of Ethan Hawke’s first documentary is thoroughly appropriate. Although Seymour Bernstein was a noted classical pianist during the brief period of time where he was a performer, he decided to end his career rather suddenly in 1977, at the age of 50. Since then, Bernstein has devoted himself to writing, teaching and composing.
Seymour: An Introduction includes footage of Bernstein’s first performance in decades, but it’s not a comeback story. It’s barely even a public performance; Bernstein plays a recital for the theater group Hawke teaches, because Hawke hopes that Bernstein will be as helpful to them as he’s been to Hawke. The two became friends years ago at a party of a mutual friend, when they struck up a conversation about stage fright that gave way to other topics. Hawke clearly has a great sense of admiration for Bernstein, who he refers to as “help[ing] me more than anyone in my own profession had been able to.”
Watching the film, Bernstein’s methods as a teacher focus on finding the balance between technical precision and passion. There’s a calm, patient tone to his delivery that rarely breaks (more about that in a moment), whether he’s instructing pupils, speaking in conversations with others, or talking to the camera. Bernstein is a man who, at least at this point in his long life, has come to find peace with the world around him. About that one break from the calm: it comes during his recounting of his days in the Korean War, and it’s the most vivid illustration of a suggestion the film offers that Bernstein’s peace was learned, not natural. Hawke seems content to not dwell too much on that, though. Instead, he lets Bernstein talk, and Bernstein’s observations gently flow from one subject to another. It’s a deep, fascinating look at a man who gave up a stellar career for a path of his own making.