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film review

Seymour Bernstein shares unforgettable stories from his remarkable life and eye-opening words of wisdom, as well as insightful reflections on art, creativity, and the search for fulfillment.Ramsey Fendall

In the thrill ride that is Whiplash, a tempo-obsessed jazz conductor whose temple vein pulsed in perfect 4/4 time often appeared angry enough to strangle students with his two bare hands.

Seymour Bernstein, the serene maestro of classical piano instruction, has better ideas on how to use his own fingers. "Modify the pulse," he softly tells his pupil, gently tapping out the metre. And later, softly touching the player's elbow, he teaches "Don't always play keys to the keyboard."

Bernstein is the fascinating and adorable subject of Seymour: An Introduction, a soulful documentary and love letter to an unexpected mentor. The actor Ethan Hawke, who directs this film, was struggling with inspiration and motivation when he happened across the engaging Bernstein at a dinner party. "Why," Hawke wondered, "make art?" Bernstein, an 85-year-old former concert pianist who turned to teaching at the age of 50, was all too happy to provide not only answers, but an outlook on life that is basis for this deftly crafted and pleasing film.

In a world in which out-of-nowhere artists are judged to be idols mostly on vocal chops alone, the charismatic Bernstein sees music as the aural manifestation of one's harmony, with his teaching devoted to that concept.

A bachelor living in a small Manhattan apartment, Bernstein is a sage with a past. He was a gifted pianist who dealt with crippling stage fright. His solution to his anxiety and feelings of inadequacy was to practice longer and harder, which is what he did until he reached a level, at midlife, to be able to play anything he desired to his satisfaction.

At that point, in 1977, he gave a final recital at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Which is not to say he no longer appeared on stage. His public workshops with students are entertaining, marked by a tutoring manner that is not at all without performance on his part.

And while the film's narrative involves the keyboard sage's return to the concert stage, his messages are more important.

Where the maniacs in Whiplash see hard work and the ruthless overcoming of obstacles as means to an end – to be a great artist – Bernstein believes the struggle is itself the point. "You won't enjoy the resolution without the dissonance," he says, explaining that the pursuit of great artistry is a reminder for one's "own quest for perfection."

As for Hawke's own filmmaking skills, it's hard to find much wrong with this film, itself a meditation on art and the practice of craft. His touch is delicate, and let's not worry too much if the tone is occasionally fawning.

Because Bernstein invites adoration, especially when he says he's no longer interested in playing the piano publicly, but that he's interested in "just playing life." And to that we might well cheer and yell "bravo" to a man who absolutely needed Hawke's commendable and necessary introduction.