AAP film review
By Diana Cheng
“Itzhak” is a gem of a documentary on the world-renowned violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. The 83-minute feature is succinct, covering highlights of his career plus some valuable archival footages. Those who are mesmerized by the talent and energy of this inspiring artist must have loved to see a longer version, maybe with more inclusion of the virtuoso’s formative years and hear more of his expositions on music and life. However, they just have to be content with Alison Chernick‘s vivacious rendition.
It starts aptly with Itzhak playing the national anthem at the New York Mets Citi Field Stadium as Itzhak is known for his love of baseball. What comes after this energetic opening is a feature that’s flowingly edited by Helen Yum. It is a documentary that is packed full of musical excerpts of Itzhak as a soloist or with others in rehearsal and on stage, music from Bach to Billy Joel, Schubert to “Schindler’s List”. Indeed, Itzhak mentions that all over the world wherever he goes, people had asked him to play the theme from “Schindler’s List”. The inclusion of this poignant piece towards the end of the documentary brings the viewers full circle back to the virtuoso’s Jewish roots.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, Itzhak was afflicted with polio as a child. Having moved from Poland to Israel, Itzhak’s parents devoted their lives to developing their son’s musical talent and seeking out opportunities for him, while many only saw his handicap. After coming to the United States, Itzhak began to be noticed. Included in the documentary is the archival footage of 13-year-old Itzhak performing the Allegretto Non Troppo of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. That was a pivotal performance and the rest is history. In the next sequence, we see Perlman receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.
Toby, Itzhak’s wife of 50 years, is his co-star in the film and in life. They met in the Meadowmount School of Music. After she heard him play in a student concert she went backstage and asked him to marry her. He was 17. That did not happen right away but marital bliss did shower upon the two a few years later. In the film, we see Itzhak and Toby play the most natural duet together as a couple: his humor and her vibrancy make a delightful counterpoint. Toby says, “to me, when I hear that sound, when I hear that playing, it’s breathing. It’s being alive.”
Another female influence in Itzhak’s life is his Juilliard teacher Dorothy Delay, who looked beyond the crutches into all the potential and talent of her young student. Ms. Delay nurtured the whole person rather than just the musical skills. Itzhak was not used to her way of teaching at first as he was asked what to think rather than being told what to do. Itzhak recalls: “When something is out of tune she would say, ‘Sugarplum, what’s your concept of G sharp?’ … I hated the way she taught me. And now that’s the way I teach.”
We then get a glimpse of Itzhak with his students. He discusses the music and shares his thoughts while eliciting theirs. “When you teach others, you teach yourself,” he says. Through The Perlman Music Program, Itzhak and Toby invest into the lives of young musicians and perpetuate their philosophy that the formation of the whole person is the key to music training.
It is a pleasure to see jovial Itzhak with friends, like sharing red wine with Alan Alda at home. Alda admits he had suffered from polio too when he was young as they share some remedies, which apparently worked for Alda. In another segment, we see Itzhak joking with the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, plucking his violin to the tune of “The Third Man”. It is gratifying to see an excerpt of the two play Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 4 in C minor after. Other musicians sharing music and food with Itzhak include Evgeny Kissin and Mischa Maisky. Itzhak apparently is very fond of Chinese cuisine.
Chernick also lets us follow the violinist in his return to Tel Aviv and his visit with the violin maker Amnon Weinstein, who shows him a Jewish violin handed down from the Holocaust, relaying the story of survival: death camp prisoners stayed alive by playing the violin in the orchestra. Later Itzhak plays the theme of “Schindler’s List” on it. The scene is the more sombre moment in the film.
As the documentary comes to the end, we see the younger generations of the Perlman family. Itzhak and Toby celebrate life with their children and grandchildren, connecting through music, faith, and love.
Exclusive engagement of “Itzhak” opens Friday, April 6 at Edina Cinema in Minneapolis.