By Elias Savada.
It’s fitting that this refreshing documentary starts out with the world renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman performing a rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Citi Field in Queens, New York. He may have been born in Tel Aviv 70-plus years ago, but he’s a die-hard Mets fan and tried-and-true New Yorker. And he plays a mean fiddle.
Whether informally practicing with equally gifted musicians Evgeny Kissin and Mischa Maisky – breaking for light chatter about Yascha Heifitz over take-out Chinese food – the film’s tone is as light as the violinist’s fingers are with his instrument. Perlman is a consummate jokester and schmoozer, even if life has caused his health to suffer after contracting polio during his early childhood. His legs may not hold up, but his spirit flies and his sense of humor soars as captured in this lovely film by Alison Chernick, a producer-director who has crafted a divinely inspiring third feature. After a decade making occasional long form films, including 2006’s Matthew Barney: No Restraint, Chernick was known for her featurettes examining the work of a wide array of contemporary personalities (James Franco, Julian Schnabel, Pedro Almodóvar, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) and the films or works in which they were involved.
On a visit to his home town, he schmoozes with Amnon Weinstein, an old school violin maker and life-long friend. Trying out several pieces at his cluttered shop, one of the instruments is described as “Jewish,” as opposed to German or French in origin. Fiddling around with it, Perlman jests, “It plays Jewish automatically,” another of the musician’s many witticisms that pleases Toby, his wife of over 50 years.
Whether playing casually, or formally with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta, the music soars. It takes your breath away. Itzhak is interspersed with old interviews, lots of family photographs, a 1958 video of a 13-year-old Perlman on The Ed Sullivan Show, news footage of him received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2015, other amusing relics, and a running commentary by Perlman talking up the trials and tribulations of his quite eventful life. It was a hard life for his family, which sacrificed much in affording the young lad to practice, practice, practice.
The documentary covers the many interests of the maestro. Teaching students. Conducting at Julliard. Rehearsing, then performing, with Billy Joel for a concert at Madison Square Garden. (Sadly, the director cuts away from what begins as a dazzling performance.) Visits from old friends, including joking with actor Alan Alda while comparing the ridiculous polio treatments their families threw at them as youngsters. Drinking huge glasses of red wines loosens them up before they devour a soup Itzhak has made. It’s a lovely collage of a unique man (with his adoring and fiercely devoted wife) as a patron of the arts, social activist, and all around mensch.
The Perlman Music Program takes up a small but important amount of the film’s final third. It’s something that Toby had created in 1994, to instill a creative spirit in young people with musical talent, to nurture them about life – where the best and not-so-best students are treated equally. It’s just one of the social enchantments that the film offers. There’s also a delicate poignancy when the sadness of Holocaust brings back memories of Perlman’s mother, a Holocaust survivors.
As the film nears its close, the camera browses about the Perlman apartment, where the 16 Grammy Awards, a handful of Emmys, and other accolades sit side-by-side on the mantle with autographed baseballs from Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock.
Itzhak reveals one man’s gift to mankind. His joy and passion overflows the frame and spills out on to the audience. The music is divine: the more the merrier. You can savor that breathtaking experience in the theatres playing this wonderful film, or wait for its broadcast later this year on PBS’s American Masters, a deserved home for this heartwarming experience.
Chernick and her quartet of cinematographers (Daniel Kedem, Christopher Gallo, Mikko Timonen, and Chris Dapkins) and her probably overworked seamstress, editor Helen Yum, have created an entertaining, crowd-pleasing salute to a virtuoso whose life is truly inspirational. It’s a triumphant examination of one of the greatest performers to grace this planet.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).