From the outset, “Seymour: An Introduction” has a lot working against it.
A pretentious title. A 1980s child actor who grew from trendy Gen-X films to stammering scared through blockbusters (“Training Day,” “The Purge”) directed the film. And it’s a documentary — about a concert pianist from New York City who decided decades ago to phase out the “concert” part of that description.
To top it off, director Ethan Hawke puts himself in the documentary and also admits to suffering through a midlife professional crisis.
Yet despite these obstacles, “Seymour” is a refreshingly pleasant, thoughtful film. Considering this is Hawke’s filmmaking debut, he chose a splendid subject in the octogenarian Seymour Bernstein — a teacher whose impact and inspiration creates a halo of admiring students, past and current.
Bernstein is as much a hands-on teacher (he may or may not ask for permission, but his hand is determined to find that diaphragm) as he is a cerebral challenger.
For possessing such a gentle disposition, Bernstein might abruptly stop students to correct their stance or condemn a new Steinway piano from the first note struck. He has the rare ability to intervene as a teacher without seeming meddlesome or dismissive.
Bernstein seems to be attuned to a higher level of instinct or observation than us common folk, and his presence truly gets more mesmerizing as the film proceeds. Thankfully, his cult leader potential defers to his real persona as a humble music teacher.
The film provides valuable insight toward that common debate over commerce’s intrusion in art. Bernstein’s experience in the prestigious New York City piano performance circuit was so nerve-shattering and joyless that he arrived, at age 50, to a philosophical conclusion not too far off from “Marx’s Concept of Man”: Embracing your lifelong artistic passion with the zeal of an amateur is worth more than any paycheck or status procurement.
Bernstein’s professional departure spoke volumes, but he still fields questions from ex-students (climbing the prestige ladder) as to why he left. He responds with the courage you would expect from a Korean War veteran.
You might see a lot of explosions and dramatic confrontations as a casual filmgoer this year, but if you’re open to the vicarious joy of witnessing (and mutually hearing) Bernstein’s thrill of discovering what he considers the best piano he’s ever played for the first time, or listening to a discussion of music’s relation to the cosmos, this is the film for you.