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Music inspires life in powerful documentary 'Seymour: An Introduction'
Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Seymour: an Introduction. - photo by Josh Terry
Sometimes I think that playing life more beautifully is what Im after, Ethan Hawke says in the documentary, Seymour: An Introduction.

but I dont know how to do it.

The Seymour in the title refers to Seymour Bernstein, an accomplished New York pianist who dedicated the majority of his career to teaching after stage fright and other frustrations led him away from the stage at the age of 50.

Hawke met Bernstein at a dinner party several years ago, at a time when the actor was searching for the meaning behind his lifes work. The man he discovered was an engaging human being who integrated music and life seamlessly, and inspired Hawke enough to make a documentary about the musician.

Seymour gives us a rich palette of content about Bernsteins life, but it isnt presented chronologically. Instead, Hawke lets Bernsteins own piano guide us through the twists and turns of the subject, painting a portrait as much as telling a story.

Bernstein played and performed for decades through the first half of his life. He performed for his fellow troops during his service in Korea and enjoyed the grand things of life thanks to wealthy beneficiaries. But by the time Hawke met him, Bernstein had been retired from public performance for nearly 35 years, and hed been living in the same New York apartment for 57.

Seymour encapsulates Bernsteins philosophy on music and life as it intercuts interviews with footage of his workshops and intimate study sessions with students. Eventually it leads to a special event Hawke helped orchestrate that features Bernsteins performance of Schumanns Fantasy in C, Opus 17.

The music guides and engages the viewer throughout the relatively brief run-time of Seymour (about 80 minutes). It enforces a powerful tone on the film, but the beauty of the music often plays second fiddle to the wisdom of its subject.

The timing of Seymour couldnt be better. His magnitude of character and impact as a teacher plays in stark contrast to the image of J.K. Simmons role in last years Whiplash. Simmons won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as a manic, profanity-spewing jazz teacher, the kind of obsessed perfectionist who blurs the line between serving the student and serving ones own ego.

Bernstein, by comparison, rules by persistent delicacy. That is not to say he is a pushover footage of him working with students in public workshops sees him correcting and chiding and testing the patience of those around him. But there is never any question whether his intentions are genuine.

According to Bernstein, a good teacher should inspire and encourage an emotional response for all aspects of life.

The thing that is most effective about Seymour is the way it refuses to limit its scope. It is a documentary not about music but about how music teaches us to understand life. Through musics language, Bernstein says, we become one with the stars.

Its a poetic statement, but the reason the music and the man stick with us is because they inspire us to work harder at whatever we are doing, regardless of whether it can be played on a piano.

Seymour: an Introduction is rated PG for some mild adult content.