It’s rare to find an artist of Itzhak Perlman’s caliber who is remarkable in so many different ways. Alice Chernick’s documentary impresses with its comprehensive picture of who the man is--where he came from, highlights of his world, and significant people in his life. One gets the impression of how so much his achievement has to do with his raw talent, but along with that, the kind of (not necessarily kind) encouragement and support he received along the way. Out of these myriad experiences, he is shown to be an unusual man who, for all the accolades, remains a mensch to his family and to his students. And…he has a golden sense of humor, which seems to underlie his whole being.
Standing beside Itzhak as a true partner is his wife Toby, whom he met in his student days in New York City. She is a classically trained violinist, but their relationship seems to be based as much on mutual interests (along with music) and shared values. Chernick focuses on their conversations and interactions in a way that shows how simpatico they are. She articulates her respect for him as a musician and as a man throughout the film. When they address the issue of how important the arts are to children’s development [decrying its vulnerability in the public school system], Toby underscores this importance by saying, “Music gives us permission to dream, to steal, to be human.”
A superb plus in the documentary is the emphasis on Perlman’s playing his violin, either on his own or in presentations with others, allowing the viewer to savor the life-pulsing lyricism that Perlman brings out in his music. We hear his discussions with violin experts about features and history of the violin itself, and why it was always so important to Jewish people, especially during the Holocaust.
There is a beautiful segment about Perlman expressing his enthusiasm for teaching, how, “when you teach others, you are teaching yourself.” Having grown up, in his words, in a “triangle of hell” with his parents, his Israeli teacher, and himself, he endured constant charges that he did not have enough ambition. This charge was disproven when he was enrolled in the Julliard School of Music and came under the tutelage of Dorothy DeLay, who he hated at first, but who made sure he was exposed to a broad education in the arts. He came to believe that the way he overcame life’s challenges was by “the ability to evolve.” He now has come to a place where he is sensitive enough to wonder, “How do you critique someone [who is out of tune] without hurting their feelings or sounding arrogant?”
The film ends with a celebration with his extended family, showing how extraordinary and inspiring it is for someone nowadays in his position to have retained in his everyday life a fair degree of modesty and all the people who are important to him.
Alice Chernick has created a fine portrait of a remarkable man who seems to have been born with an unbelievable talent, which, she shows, was honed by both others in his life and his own experience to exemplify a true hero of the arts and humanities.
Itzhak is an artist to inspire us beyond music to life itself.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland