'Seymour: An Introduction'
Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut as an unlikely documentarian is the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug. It clearly comes from a personal place for Hawke and showcases a gentle soul who almost feels like a living Buddha with a knack for the piano. It’s impossible to feel anything but warm feelings when wandering out of ‘Seymour: An Introduction’.
The movie succeeds in such small and modest ways that it’s ironic the only reason it’s hitting screens at all is because it was made by a famous movie star. Granted, Hawke made the film well. It’s just a shame that even tiny movies need a big name to get noticed.
The doc opens with some candid confession from its director. Before becoming an unlikely horror star and anchoring a series of beloved Richard Linklater masterpieces about aging, Hawke admits that he was in a creative and existential funk a few years ago. He didn’t know if he even enjoyed acting anymore and wasn’t sure what he was getting out of it. Thankfully, the man found inspiration and consolation from an unlikely source: former concert pianist, current teacher, and lifelong accidental philosopher Seymour Bernstein. They met at a New York party when Hawke was particularly down, and an unlikely friendship was struck with Bernstein sharing life lessons that made Hawke realize everything was worthwhile after all. Now Hawke wants to give the gift of Seymour Bernstein to the world via this documentary.
Bernstein was a beloved concert pianist in his youth. He toured the world with great success and was also a prolific music writer. Then, at the peak of his fame, he stopped. Now he lives a humble life working as a music teacher. Based on any of the conventions of storytelling or American dreams, that’s insane and the guy should think he’s a failure. Yet that couldn’t be further from Seymour Bernstein’s perspective on life. He has found total peace in the world, and it’s not as if his talents are squandered at all. He passes along his lessons on life and music daily, and his impact is palpable. Hawke delicately showcases Bernstein’s life, thoughts and work in this gentle wisp of a film with a surprising emotional impact. An accurate point of comparison would be ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’, another documentary that isn’t really about a master sushi chef but about how his passion has dictated his life and led to enlightenment.
If that all sounds a little irritatingly New Age self-helpy, well this is indeed that type of movie. Hawke wears his heart on his sleeve with an adoringly sentimental portrait of a man who couldn’t imagine wearing his heart anywhere else. While the film certainly has beautiful music performed by Bernstein and others, his profession almost feels incidental. Sure, Bernstein has a remarkable gift and plenty to say about the subject, but that’s not really the point of this movie or his life. No, the point of Hawke’s introduction to Seymour is rather eloquently summed up in a single quote from the man himself: “The most important thing is an even pulse, a pulse that never stops.” When Bernstein makes the offhand remark, he’s referring to a proper piano playing style, but that statement obviously means much more. To borrow a phrase from ‘Dazed and Confused’, it’s all about L-I-V-I-N, this movie and otherwise.
Hawke may not have created an earth-shattering masterpiece with his directorial debut, nor has he suggested that he’s spent his career on the wrong side of the camera. He did, however, find a person worth introducing us all to and a gentle message worth imparting. For a guy who never made a movie before and might not ever do it again, that’s not bad. In fact, it’s actually pretty good.