When it comes to documentaries, some viewers prefer that their non-fiction films be well stocked with talking heads. Others feel a filmmaker’s propensity to trot out a parade of experts is a handy but often tedious convention. Itzhak, documentarian Alison Chernick’s latest film about celebrated concert violinist Itzhak Perlman, decidedly falls into the latter category. Chernick, whose previous films focused on American fine artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons, consciously decided to trade-in the heads for the quotidian stuff.
If you’re already well acquainted with Perlman and his music, spending time with Itzhak the Everyman—cooking at home, playing the “Star Spangled Banner” before a Mets playoff game, sharing a bottle of wine with Alan Alda—might suffice. For those less familiar with Itzhak the Musician, hearing from more music professionals and academicians would be a welcome addition. However you feel about documentary content, the music segments will leave you wanting to hear more.
Even if you’re already a fan of Perlman’s otherworldly talent for producing sinuous sound with a horsehair bow and four strings, you’ll probably learn something new about the maestro. His wife, Toby Friedlander, recalls the time she first heard her husband-to-be perform in person. They had never met, but she finagled her way backstage and proposed to him, half-jokingly, we assume. Four years later, they married. That was 50 years ago.
Itzhak contains some wonderful archive footage. One of my favorite segments shows Perlman sitting together with NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, wearing his ever-present San Francisco Giants cap. They’ve convened at the White House to receive the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor. Just goes to show genius comes in many flavors and colors.
In another scene, Perlman recounts how his teachers discouraged him from pursuing a musical career after he came down with polio at age four. He didn’t listen. In a clip from nine years later, Perlman, wearing crutches, makes his U.S. television debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show” with a jaw-dropping performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. Opens Friday, 5/11, at Salem Cinema