Seymour Bernstein is Subject of Ethan Hawke Documentary

NYU Steinhardt News

Seymour Bernstein is Subject of Ethan Hawke Documentary

Three years ago, Piano Studies professor Seymour Bernstein was invited to have dinner at the home of one of his longtime piano students, Dr. Anthony Zito.

“Sparks were flying,” remarked Bernstein during the dinner, at which Ethan Hawke and Andrew Harvey were also guests.

The pianist, actor, and spiritual leader spoke at length about various subjects, including stage fright, a topic Bernstein has written about in his books With Your Own Two Hands and Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music. At one point Hawke turned to Bernstein and said, “We want to hear you play.”

Coordinating the three men’s busy schedules meant that Bernstein’s private performance for them didn’t take place until a year later. Though Bernstein was an active teacher, he hadn’t performed in 37 years. To prepare for the hour-long recital, which he held in his home, he said, “I practiced diligently for hours each day.”

Afterwards, Andrew Harvey came up to Bernstein, wiping his eyes, and said, “Whether you want to or not, we’re going to make a documentary about you.”

Soon thereafter, Bernstein’s one and a half room apartment on the Upper West Side was transformed into a movie set, and the Newark, New Jersey, native was transformed into a star.

“The cameramen and sound men brought in so much equipment you couldn’t walk in my apartment,” he said.

Bernstein was documented during various phases of his musical life. In addition, there are scenes of his day-to-day living, such as closing his sofa bed (he does not have a bedroom), and making morning coffee.

The resulting documentary is called Seymour: An Introduction. The title was taken from a J.D. Salinger story.

The film consists of footage of Bernstein playing at his home piano, interviews with Andrew Harvey and with The New York Times’ architectural critic and cultural ambassador Michael Kimmelman, and two scenes of Bernstein teaching master classes at NYU Steinhardt’s Frederick Loewe and Black Box Theatres.

A highlight of the film is a recital Hawke asked Bernstein to give at the rotunda at historic Steinway Hall on 57th street, a concert space Bernstein describes as resembling a “palace.”

The audience consisted of Hawke’s colleagues from the acting world. As Bernstein admitted, “Some of them were famous actors and actresses. But I must confess that I didn’t know who they were.”

Hawke’s main objective in making the film was to demonstrate to young people how being involved in an art form can influence your life. To Bernstein, “productive practicing and performing can make you not only a better musician, but more importantly, a better person.”

“Everyone who sees the film starts to cry,” said Bernstein. “The editing is a work of genius, putting together all these splinters of shoots and making a story out of it.”

Seymour: An Introduction will be screened at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, September 26, and Monday, September 29.

The documentary debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, was previously shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was featured in  Variety, the New York Times and Reuters.

-Caroline Lagnado