Telluride 2014: Ethan Hawke's Wonderful 'Seymour: An Introduction'
by Alex Billington
September 1, 2014
When we look back on our lives, there are always key individuals who have an immeasurable influence on us. Not just our family (and relatives), but friends, mentors, teachers, those with learned wisdom to impart and lessons to teach. If they say the right things they can alter our destiny forever, or remind us why/how life is worth living in the midst of the constant stress and chaos of this world. Seymour: An Introduction is a documentary by actor Ethan Hawke introducing us to his inspiration - the piano legend Seymour Bernstein, who is such a humble, charming, considerate man. This wonderful doc spends intimate time with him, showing us his own history, who he is, and how much the emotion of music is important to life.
As odd as this may sound, the comparison that came to mind while I was watching Seymour at Telluride was something like Tim's Vermeer (another excellent documentary I saw at Telluride last year) meets Whiplash with your grandpa instead of J.K. Simmons' hard-ass character. Seymour is lovable, but stern, as we watch him teach master classes and scold (with care) the students on how to play the piano better. But I think it's his charm deep down, and his love for music and what it does for the soul, that makes him, and this doc, so unique and special. Let me tell you - you want to get to know Seymour Bernstein. Now I really want to take piano lessons from him, too. Mostly to see what kind of wisdom he can impart upon me and my own life.
What makes Seymour so unique is his rejection of the public spotlight of talent and success. During his younger years he performed in the military and later at shows all over the world, receiving rave reviews. But he eventually gave that up to stick with teaching students and mentoring many of his friends. It's that choice that makes the film even more fascinating to delve into, exploring the struggle of artists/creative people, and the idea giving into the demand of public performance and consumerism. Instead, he chooses to ignore all of that and rather focus on the purity of music and its ability to affect and define us as human beings.
As for the film itself, Ethan Hawke presents the story of Seymour beautifully, spending time exploring his past and present so that we can understand him and all his quirks. However, it's a fairly light documentary that doesn't include any explanation behind the bigger picture, or flashy graphics or sleek cinematography or embellishments that take away from its subject. It's straightforward, perhaps occasionally to a fault, and unfortunately Hawke cuts out the actual lessons he learned. At one point he is talking about Seymour and says he had a conversation with him that changed his life, but he never follows up. Sure, we can learn just by watching Seymour's story anyway, but it would've added more depth and context to connect all the dots.
After watching Seymour at Telluride it left me in a rather euphoric mood. Music is love, love is music. All I wanted to do is put on some Schubert, Bach and/or Beethoven and stare up at the stars the rest of the night listening. I took piano lessons growing up and that certainly had an affect on my own character, which lead me to be emotional watching some of these scenes with Seymour working with talented young individuals. Please get to know him, you'll be thankful you did. And we owe it all to Ethan Hawke for presenting us with a wonderful introduction to an affectionate, inspiring, unforgettable person. Now it's time for Schubert...
Alex's Telluride Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing