This documentary (trailer), filled with beautiful music, is an étude of acclaimed concert pianist Seymour Bernstein and a joy, start to finish. Bernstein retired so he could pour his musical ideas into the vessels of his students. And not just musical ideas; his philosophy is that having access to emotion in music encourages access to emotion and satisfaction in other aspects of life. We see him providing pianists of all ages with just the right amount of subtle guidance to dramatically elevate their performances, encourage them to compose as well as play, and, apparently, achieve harmony in life in general.
Scenes take place in the one-room apartment he’s had for 40 years on the upper East Side of Manhattan, near Central Park, in various venues where former students interviewed him, NYU Master Classes, in the piano testing room of Steinway New York, and finally, its main floor rotunda, where he plays a concert to an audience of former students, colleagues, and fans. The interactions with students, former students, and other musicians are revealing, and none more so than his conversations with the film’s director, actor Ethan Hawke.
Hawke met Bernstein serendipitously at a dinner and discovered in him a person with whom he could discuss the anxieties of performance, and the disconnect between good work and success and Bernstein, with what seems to be characteristic generosity, shared his insights. He certainly did not reach his current eminence without his own challenges. When he was young, his father would say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” which felt like a rejection of him as a son and pained him mightily.
As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army in Korea and teamed up with a talented violinist and a tenor and, despite their commanding officer’s skepticism, put on a concert for the troops—most of whom had never heard “serious” or classical music before. “They wouldn’t let us off the stage,” Bernstein says with glee, even 60 years later. The concert was so successful a tour of front-line camps was arranged. The memory is also bitter, because Bernstein remembers the war dead, and the pain of seeing those body bags has hardly faded.
Except for these memories, the movie is strongly up-beat, with a man doing what he loves and people (students, audiences, moviegoers) responding to his skill and passion. As Detroit News critic Tom Long says, “The great joy of the film, whether you know piano or not, is watching Bernstein teach.” This is a man you will be glad you got to know. The film ends with a typically modest and inspiring Bernstein statement: “I never thought that, with my two hands, I could touch the sky.”
Rotten Tomatoes critics give it a 100% rating and audiences 89%.