“Ethan Hawke, who has made a very lovely portrait of virtuoso pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein, is going to be his own worst enemy in terms of getting people to actually see the damn thing,” predicts Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope. “Le Grand Ethan does appear once or twice in [Seymour: An Introduction], primarily as a kind of pretext or prime mover, explaining why those without a specific interest in music might nevertheless find Bernstein a compelling thinker and raconteur…. But luckily, Hawke is sensible enough to let his subject do most of the talking, and to make room for more qualified conversationalists (critic Michael Kimmelman, theologian Andrew Harvey) when necessary.”
“Here’s the thing that’s easy to forget about Ethan Hawke: less than a decade ago, he was James Franco.” Jason Bailey elaborates at Flavorwire, noting that after Reality Bites (1993), Hawke “carefully cultivated Serious Artist image. Acting wasn’t enough; he wrote bad books and turned them into bad movies. But as with Franco, the thinness of his other ventures and the caricature he could so easily lapse into made it easy to forget that there was a very fine actor behind all that other nonsense.” And Seymour, it turns out, “is a lovely film, thoughtful and modest (in the best possible sense: brief, intimate, and true). Hawke shows real skill as a documentarian: He’s got a good eye and a crisp style, his archival footage is well-chosen and sparingly used, he moves between scenes and ideas gracefully and seamlessly, and there’s a real elegance to the film, one which seems to key off its subject.”
Seymour is “an ode to Bernstein’s almost monastic devotion to his art,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “The soft-spoken yet voluble artist notes that he’s lived in the same one-room apartment for 57 years. Though you wouldn’t know it from his warm, engaging presence, Bernstein argues that the greatest musicians are inherently difficult to deal with, and often basket cases. The possibility of musical perfection is too stark a contrast against what Bernstein calls ‘the unpredictable nature of the social world.'”
“Bernstein continually points out how important it is for talented people to take the time to develop their gifts, and how detrimental the temptations of fame and success can be to one’s growth as an artist,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “In an entertainment landscape where creative types are now encouraged to brand themselves into social-media superstars before they’ve even had the chance to cultivate an inner life, this is essential, if radical, advice. Still, all that high-minded talk of artistic integrity might have rung hollow were it not for Hawke’s own highly adventurous track record as an actor and filmmaker, and some of it might have sounded unbearably precious coming from a documentary subject less poised, expressive and in command of his words than Bernstein.”
“Seymour culminates with tidbits from a private concert,” notes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, and the “final takeaway is that nothing Bernstein says about the process of creating art can supplant the pleasures of experiencing it.” More from Stephen Farber (Hollywood Reporter) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com).
Listening (35’54”). NYFF director Kent Jones talks with Bernstein and Hawke.
Update, 9/27: Michael Cooper profiles Bernstein for the New York Times.
Update, 9/29: Scott Feinberg talks with Hawke for the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 10/1: Forrest Cardamenis at the Film Stage: “One need not listen to Bernstein and others waxing metaphysical about the spiritual powers of music to appreciate Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven, and Schubert as we hear them, all beautifully timed and synced courtesy of editor Anna Gustavi and mixers Timothy Cleary & Guillermo Pena-Tapia. It’s easy (and not entirely unfair) to contrast the anti-commercialist message of Bernstein and Hawke with the crowd-pleasing style and straightforward structure of the film, but those looking for an aesthetic and intellectual challenge have come to the wrong film. Those who simply wish to be uplifted and moved, much like the admiring faces of the attendees at the film’s end (count Mark Ruffalo among them), however, will be delighted.”