It takes a lot of nerve to name your documentary after a recognizable work by an iconic author. But Ethan Hawke more than earns that right with “Seymour: An Introduction,” which may not bear obvious resemblance to J.D. Salinger’s portrait of his literary alter ego, Seymour Glass, but nonetheless engages questions about art, authenticity, spiritual vocation and transcendent values of which Salinger himself would no doubt heartily approve.
Hawke’s Seymour is the pianist Seymour Bernstein, who may not be a household name now, but who in the 1950s and 1960s was a highly respected concert pianist in New York and on the world stage. Although Bernstein’s performances were well reviewed, he suffered from stage fright and also deeper existential concerns regarding his correct path in life. At the age of 50, he retired without warning, and ever since has been living a monklike existence in a one-room Manhattan apartment, where he teaches piano.
Does this sound sad? It shouldn’t, because “Seymour: An Introduction” turns out to be a deeply moving, even ecstatic experience, as the beatific Bernstein, now in his 80s, gently prods his students to greatness and delivers wise, sensitive observations about music and life. Even more pleasingly, the audience is treated to interludes when he plays transporting passages of Schubert and Schumann, holds master classes and prepares for a comeback concert Hawke has organized at Steinway Hall. As the filmmaker explains, he met Bernstein at a dinner party, and the older man’s almost mystical understanding of how talent and identity fuse to create a larger sense of purpose clearly resonated with a middle-aged actor struggling to find his own place within a medium that is both an art form and a business.
The earnest, curious Hawke makes a few appearances throughout “Seymour: An Introduction,” but this is Bernstein’s show, and hallelujah for that. He’s utterly delightful company, whether he’s puttering around his tiny Delft-tiled kitchen, working out a particularly gnarly passage on the keyboard or quietly suggesting that a student lower his shoulders or lighten his touch.
In fact, one way to think of “Seymour: An Introduction” is as the anti-“Whiplash,” last year’s indie darling and Academy Award nominee about a sadistic music teacher torturing a gifted young drummer. Where that film was toxic, pessimistic and wildly overblown, “Seymour: An Introduction” gives viewers a soaring, sublime and enduringly meaningful glimpse of a man who is undoubtedly the real thing.
PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains mild thematic elements. 80 minutes.
Seymour Bernstein will answer questions after the following screenings: 7 p.m. Friday; and 1:50 and 7 p.m. Saturday. (An earlier version of this review listed incorrect times for the Q&As; this version has been corrected.)