By James C. Taylor
Itzhak Perlman has been a household name for so long that it’s easy to lose perspective when it comes to his accomplishments: fame, countless awards and honors—plus, of course, his recordings and performances. But there’s a scene in the new documentary Itzhak (to be released in selected theaters this month and airing on PBS later this year), in which the fruits of his success become immediately tangible.
Over the course of its 82 minutes, the documentary, directed by Alison Chernick, reveals many facets of his personality and artistry, but in one of the scenes shot in Perlman’s Manhattan townhouse, viewers are shown a glimpse of his office, where you can see his 16 Grammy awards, four Emmy awards, and Presidential Medal of Freedom all lined up next to each other. The force of his triumphs hits you in a very physical way.
As a portrait, the film is also a potent reminder of how Perlman’s success has been shaped by his refusal to be limited by a crippling case of polio at age four, which has meant a life lived in leg braces, and more recently, with the help of his trusted Amigo scooter.
“With cinéma verité, you don’t know what you are going to get, and it’s that spontaneity, mystery, and improv that creates the perfect storm—it’s that storm that you hope can lay the foundation for the narrative.”
In the opening scene of the documentary, Perlman rides his scooter out of a vehicle in the parking lot at Citi Field (home of his beloved New York Mets) so he can perform the national anthem before the first pitch of the 2016 National League Wildcard Game. His performance for an audience of almost 45,000 people is made all the more poignant by another moment early in the film, as he recounts battling his Israeli teachers as a child. They urged him not to follow his violin studies due to the disease, but Perlman says he told them: “Judge me for what I can do—not for what I can’t do.”
One of the joys of the film is that it shows not only what Perlman can do, but also what—and how much—he has done. In addition to all of the footage that Chernick and her crew shot during the past two years (at a screening in New York City last fall, Perlman joked that the director “for centuries now has been following me with cameras—thank you Alison now for leaving me alone!”), there’s also expertly curated archival clips of Perlman playing on Israeli television as a child and his spellbinding performance on the Ed Sullivan Show as a 13 year old.
Given Perlman’s long career and visibility—celebrated by exhaustive box sets of his recordings released in honor of his 70th birthday in 2015 (Deutsche Grammophon’s weighs in at 25 CDs to Warner Classics’ astounding 77)—it’s surprising that no major biography of his life has been published. Chernick’s film fills this void as it not only gives the viewer a solid background of Perlman’s life story, but also provides considerable insight to his talent, temperament, and sense of humor.
When asked in his Carnegie Hall dressing room, during a break in rehearsal last year, how the documentary came about, Perlman says simply: “The opportunity arose.” He adds: “We saw some of Alison’s films and then we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Chernick’s previous films have documented lives of artists such as Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Matthew Barney, and Martin Margiela. “My background is doing compelling portraits on visual artists, so I was excited about the opportunity to work with a classical musician,” Chernick says. “While the process is similar, I was curious to explore the world of classical music in such depth. Always a fan of Perlman, [I found] it was also an issue of good timing—it was his 70th year and they were open to the idea after exploring my previous work.”
The filming took place all over the world, capturing Perlman’s performing life in cities like Paris, Tel Aviv, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Chernick says that the travel production was not as daunting as the post-production: “The biggest challenge with documentary films is always the edit room. You get all this great footage then it’s about putting it together and finding the story. In this case the story was his life, and I didn’t feel the need to impose another story onto that.”
The film illustrates his wide-ranging musical tastes and partners, as he plays with musicians like Zubin Mehta, Billy Joel, Martha Argerich, and Evgeny Kissen (in one early scene in the film, Perlman asks Kissen nonchalantly, “Did you ever meet Heifetz?” Chernick says that traveling with Perlman to Israel several times was particularly memorable, “and also the best way to really get close to the material I wanted in the film. With cinéma verité, you don’t know what you are going to get, and it’s that spontaneity, mystery, and improv that creates the perfect storm—it’s that storm that you hope can lay the foundation for the narrative. In our case, we randomly walked into this violin shop and before we knew it the violin maker was opening up violins from Auschwitz with swastikas and gave us an organic path to explore Jewish history.”
The film received its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival last October, featuring a performance by the maestro himself, as he played his 1714 “Soil” Stradivari alongside students from the Perlman Music Program (founded by Perlman and his wife Toby at nearby Shelter Island) after the red-carpet, opening-night premiere.
When I ask Perlman at Carnegie Hall a few weeks later what he thought of the documentary (he had watched only parts of the film before the Hamptons premiere) he says simply—in fact almost deadpan—“I have no idea how it is.” I am a little confused, so I ask, “Didn’t you just see it?” He responds, “I’ve seen it. And it’s very good, but I feel I am prejudiced, because I was involved with it. So I don’t feel I’m the proper person to say it was very good or not. All I can say is that the time goes very quickly when I see it. So, to me, that’s a good sign.”
His answer shows both Perlman’s humility as well his exactitude—two facets of his character that Chernick’s Itzhak captures in subtle ways, in scenes where he’s teaching students or rehearsing with major musicians. But they are illuminated fully in a key scene where he speaks about his teacher at Juilliard, famed pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. He recalls his teacher in Israel being a taskmaster, and how when he came to the States, he wasn’t used to having a teacher treat him like a colleague. He admits that DeLay asking him to think about the pieces and not just play them the way the teacher wanted at first “angered him” before it “inspired him.”
The film provides a lovely portrait of Perlman’s wife and fellow musician, Toby. The two have been married for over 50 years and they speak candidly of how they met, admired each other’s musical talents, and ultimately became best friends and devoted spouses. Family and faith are clearly two things the Perlmans take seriously, and the scenes with his children and grandchildren are touching. It’s no spoiler alert to reveal that the end of the film features a lively Klezmer band jam session.
Whether it’s Jewish folk music or the core Romantic repertoire that Perlman plays so sweetly, it is music that ultimately is what Itzhak delivers in a way no printed biography can. Film, with its melding of sound and image, captures not just Perlman’s voice, gestures, and handsome charm, it captures his music. In one virtuoso sequence, Chernick films Perlman in a tight close-up rehearsing the Bruch Violin Concerto. Then it cuts seamlessly to him playing the same piece with a full orchestra in a formal performance. Then it cuts to black-and-white photos of a younger Perlman playing as the piece morphs, again seamlessly, into an old recording. It’s an old cinematic trick, but it works—allowing viewers to leap through time and space in Perlman’s life, with the music holding it all together.