At 88 years old, Seymour Bernstein looks more than a decade younger. He lives on the upper West Side of Manhattan in a prewar studio that he shares with his grand piano and momentos of his life in music. He is nothing less than extraordinary As a pianist. A musician. A composer. A teacher. And as a man.
The film “Seymour,” created by Ethan Hawke, is a work of wonder. Far more than a film about music, or the biography of a brilliant pianist, it’s a film about life. How to live it. How to look at it. How to survive it. And how to feel it in your bones.
It begins as Seymour speaks with Michael Kimmelman, award winning author, chief art critic of the New York Times, and a concert pianist himself, who has been Seymour’s student since the age of five. He questions Seymour about his life, and delicately, yet powerfully, this life unfolds before us like a worn, yet gorgeous, silken quilt.
His childhood: “There was no music in my house.”
His father: “I have three daughters and a pianist.”
His time in Korea: “I hiked 20 miles in zero degree weather. Others didn’t make it. I kept going. It was the musical mindset that did it.”
When I think of Seymour, and I’ve been thinking of him a lot, since I saw the film last week, he’s a place as well as a person. He’s the Seymour place, where the irritations and difficulties fall away. A place of solitude, grace, and beauty, where life’s detritus is forbidden to make the slightest appearance.
Along with hearing him speak, we see Seymour teach. We see the meticulous practice of a phrase played again and again, until the notes flow, until the slightest failed nuance is addressed.
Despite his success and stunning reviews, Seymour stopped playing in public when he was fifty. He was at the height of his celebrity, but had terrible stage fright — an experience he shares with Ethan Hawke. It took too much from him. It got in his way when he wanted to give the world and himself something else. Something not so self-obsessed. Something beyond the conceit of a brilliant performance.
Toward the end of the film, there’s a small private concert where we hear him play. He admits that he’s nervous. Yet, once he begins he’s calm. Transparent. He plays like an angel. No drama. No ego. Pure art. Even I could hear it, and I’m no musician.
Life is many things. Love, beauty, connection, happiness, joy, pain, failure and triumph. At this juncture, I can add Seymour. Yes. Life, if you’re lucky, is Seymour. You might enjoy seeing this film. And you might choose to invite Seymour into your own life as well. You could hardly do better.
Note: A friend pointed out that Ethan Hawke was “the shy boy,” in Dead Poets Society.” In a way, he remains that boy. Wondering what it’s all about; how to relate to life in a more genuine way. Here, he looks to Seymour, as his character did with Robin Williams in that long ago film. But Seymour is a better bet. He’s real. And he chooses life at every turn