Directed by Alison Chernick (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
I've said this before in other reviews, but the litmus test by which one gauges documentaries should always be slightly different from the one used for fictional narratives. Reality is not like fiction; it has no arc or final moral, it just is, rising and falling, an oxymoronic, chaotic rhythm of days, a series of events that do not have a mythic structure. For a character study in fiction, we examine the ways in which we relate or do not relate to their theoretical experience; for the character study documentary, we are a more passive witness to the person we are learning about. Are we necessarily here to see how we relate to Itzhak Perlman? Yes and no. The subject of Itzhak is a real person, astoundingly real. Both an Israeli-American, disabled Jew, and a wunderkind violinist, existing in the same body, two sides of the same soul. His brightness exceeds all fiction. He is inherently human. Director Alison Chernick makes the right decision in focusing her camera, therefore, on his intense humanity - his intimate conversations with family and friends, the difficulty of riding his electric wheelchair over icy New York streets, a rehearsal with Billy Joel, teaching students at his school, buying cauliflower. Chernick's documentary is not about what people think of Itzhak Perlman. It's Itzhak Perlman, preserved on film.
One of my favorite moments is Itzhak describing the violin as an instrument specifically suited to be an extension of the human soul. A piano, he says, for instance, will make music simply by pressing a key; the violin will only make music for the person who determines to feel it into existence. By witnessing moments, snatches of Perlman's daily life (his larger-than-life, exuberant wife Toby, serving often as a kind of narrator, as Perlman seems to prefer playing to expounding in words) we begin to feel the man behind the music; we are no longer casual listeners, we become active witnesses to what drives his art. His Jewish heritage is a huge, innate part of his life, and so his music is innately Jewish, a love song to Jewish people and history, as we see so intimately with his friend Amnon Weinstein, who gives him a Jewish-made violin to play (and later shows him another Jewish violin that a Nazi wrote propaganda inside, a chilling discovery). Listening to Perlman play the theme from Schindler's List, involuntary tears sprang into the corners of my eyes; like all art, music is in part a way to remember the past. Itzhak's music is innately tied not only to his own life, but the life is his family, his ancestry, and his heritage.
His handicap (a lack of the use of his legs due to polio as a child) seems to have naturally spurred him towards the instrument in his youth; as he says himself at one point "[I wasn't] going to be a tennis player". Art functions as a way for us to express ourselves beyond the obvious, immediate tools of life; where we may lack in the eyes of society in one way, we become exceptional in another for our uniqueness, like a blind person gaining keener listening skills than any average human. The documentary thankfully never tries to paint him as a perfect being or a role model; I liked its casual, observant and non-judgmental tone (he visits Netanyahu at one point, for instance, during a trip to Jerusalem, and it shows him sitting with George W. Bush and Obama alike); documentaries are not necessarily given the task of interpreting events, merely recording them, and can be judged on how well they can do so impartially. All in all a lovely window into the life of a very real musician, arguably one of the most well-known of the 20th century; Itzhak's love of his art is so infectious and warm, I could almost forgive him for being a huge Mets fan (go Phillies, y'all).