“ITZHAK”— The Life, Work and Religious Heritage of Violinist Itzhak Perlman


The Life, Work and Religious Heritage of Violinist Itzhak Perlman

Amos Lassen

Alison Chernick’s new documentary, “Itzhak” ha sboth god music and good company and it should since it is a personality sketch of the world-famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman. Chernick captures the Manhattan-dwelling subject at home and on tour around the globe, hobnobbing with classical colleagues as well as the likes of close friend Alan Alda  and former President of the United States, Barak Obama. 

Perlman was born in 1945 in Tel Aviv to Polish émigré parents who were non-musical, though they quickly supported their prodigy son’s talent. Others did not because they thought he couldn’t get far on the leg braces that polio forced on him when he was just four years old. At thirteen, he was both enrolled at Juilliard and making his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

We see just glimpses of his meteoric subsequent rise in archival performance and interview clips and that is deliberate. Chernick’s main focus is on the subject’s everyday life and this includes such activities as eating Chinese takeout with other living classical-musicians and legends, accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, jetting to Jerusalem for a prize, backing up Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden or playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open a Mets game. There are also less grand moments when we see Pearlman rehearsing with an orchestra or in the recording studio, teaching music students (at Juilliard and the Perlman Program summer camp and negotiating wintertime NYC sidewalks in his wheelchair-scooter.

Perlman is quite a personality who seems comfortable in almost any setting. Yet here he often appears to take a conversational back seat around wife Toby (also a violinist who says she is “not a particularly exciting one” by comparison to her husband), a perfect soul mate in seemingly every respect. Their busy, curious, affectionately meddling dynamic sets the general tone here and we see the film as if we have been invited to spend the weekend with a family of acquaintances who just happen to include one international celebrity and celebrity freinds. The film is just that intimate. We see how important Jewish identity, culture and ritual is in the Perlman’s lives, and we see their lifestyle  as casual . There’s also time to look at the fascinations of the violin as a physical instrument whether we visit a dealer in Tel Aviv or see Perlman’s favored Stradivarius looked over by a repairer before a tour.

The music of Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Strauss, et al., weave through the film more incidentally than focused since this is the kind of documentary where Pearlman might reasonably enough be last seen playing with nontraditional klezmer band the Klezmatics.

Alison Chernick’s documentary is a fond portrait of the violinist Itzhak Perlman. We see him as he makes “garbage-pail soup” for Alan Alda and collaborates with other musicians. Most important, he plays, filling the film with the yearning strains of his instrument. Ample archival material shows a child sensation playing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1958 and a young man performing in Israel in 1974.   Chernick gives time to Perlman’s discussions of the violin. He beautifully says that to elicit a sound from a piano is automatic but from a violin, he says, “when you finally get the sound, you are really getting something out of yourself.” To coax emotional shadings from a violin, “the more you have in your heart, the more you have to give,” he explains.

The film follows him unobtrusively through observing the Sabbath with family, rehearsing a trio or maneuvering his scooter through snow. His wife is with him and she is a sunny, empathetic presence.

Aside from frank views of his crutches and leg braces and a mention of early rejections because of his handicap, the film glides lightly and uncritically along the surface of a life. We get a brief look into his family’s past and emigration from Israel; the filmmaker never goes deeply enough to reveal any other substantial dimension of this man or theories about what shaped him. That does not mean that hat we see is superficial, it is the kind of film it is meant to be. This is a character-study documentary that captures Itzhak Perlman’s warmth and bravado through short, anecdote-centric scenes and we see him as something of a big-hearted raconteur who wants to tell everything about himself.

Chernick suggests that this is something in Perlman’s bubbly and open personality and not some singular biographical event, like the musician’s childhood struggles with polio that has caused his rise “to becoming the rock star of the classical music world.” She lets him talk and she uses pre-existing video and audio footage of Perlman performing to illustrate his abstract, even rambling theories about how he has grown as an artist by answering his Juilliard School students’ questions, or of what one admirer truly means when he compliments Perlman for “praying with the violin.”

Watching the film is like looking at a revealing scrapbook of Perlman’s favorite stories. We see him on “The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958” interpreting the Allegretto Non Troppo from Mendelsohhn’s joyful 64th opus (My parents never forgot that and it was often used as a goal that my sisters and I should aspire to which was really interesting since we played no musical instruments). We see him today as he replies to questions from his students after they listen to a recording of Perlman playing Johannes Brahms’s triumphal seventeenth piece in his Hungarian Dances cycle and we see Perlman at home, drinking red wine and kibitzing with Alan Alda about the ineffable nature of creative genius, just moments before we see a clip of a younger Perlman joyfully shredding Johann Sebastian Bach’s raucous second violin partita solo for a packed Israeli concert hall in 1974 (I was there that night and I will never forget it). I also will not forget this wonderful look at Perlman.

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