Ethan Hawke has starred in a number of my all-time favourite films, specifically those made by Richard Linklater in which Hawke plays characters which in some sense I take to be autobiographical (especially as Hawke is also credited as a co-writer of some of these films). In other words, despite the many lousy films Hawke has starred in (most of which I refuse to watch), I have always had the impression that he is a man searching for a meaning in life that goes beyond societal norms.
It comes as no surprise to me, therefore, that Hawke would make a documentary about a New York City pianist in which the underlying theme is precisely that; in this case, focusing on how music and the meaning of life intertwine. Indeed, during the few scenes in which we see Hawke talking with the pianist, Hawke is trying to get a handle on how his own life as an actor (and filmmaker) can become more meaningful, setting aside typical definitions of success.
The pianist in question is Seymour Bernstein. Now 85 years old, he was a well-known concert pianist until the age of 50, at which point his struggles with stage fright finally drove him to retire from the stage and led him to a much more meaningful part of his life and career, as a piano teacher. Along the way, Bernstein has searched for integration in his life, with, in his case, music being what links him to meaning and fulfillment in the deepest spiritual sense.
While Hawke gives us glimpses into Bernstein’s past, the focus of Seymour: An Introduction is Bernstein’s life and learnings in the present. So we get to meet some of his past and present students and hear the impact Bernstein has had on them, we get to watch him teach, and we get to hear him reflect on what life and music have taught him. For Bernstein, music is something mystical and magical that connects to our deepest emotions and spirituality, and he tries to impart this to his students. I have always appreciated the way music connects me to stories in a deeper way, which is why I love musicals and operas, so I had no trouble connecting with Bernstein’s comments in the film.
But Bernstein knows that music isn’t everyone’s link to fulfillment. “The essence of who we are lies in our talent, whatever that is,” Bernstein says. For Hawke, Bernstein suggests, the talent is acting (and, perhaps, filmmaking). It’s definitely linked to creativity. As I understood Bernstein, the extent to which we find happiness and fulfillment in our lives is dependent on the nurturing of that talent and making it, as much as possible, a part of our daily work, though there are dangers to watch for.
Seymour: An Introduction is moving and profound and reveals Hawke’s considerable skills as a documentary filmmaker in the beautiful way it presents this tribute to an amazing man. I’m not quite sure it deserves **** but that’s where I’m leaning for now. My mug is up.