The humanity and artistry of Itzhak Perlman

Itzhak Perlman at home (photo: Greenwich Entertainment)Itzhak Perlman at home (photo: Greenwich Entertainment)

“Praying with the violin” is how an old friend describes the art of Itzhak Perlman in “Itzhak,” and by the time these words are said, the viewer is convinced. The music in the documentary is wonderful, of course, and it helps you understand why Perlman is among the two or three best-known classical musicians in the nonclassical world. It shows how he can sell “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Citi Field as well as he can a Bach partita or the theme to “Schindler’s List.” But the film is also about Perlman the Mensch, and it does a great job of selling itself and selling him.

Perlman can sell “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Citi Field as well as he can a Bach partita. 

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Alison Chernick, who has made a number of documentaries on subjects ranging from Matthew Barney to Mario Batali, obviously harbors great affection for the violinist and chooses a fairly unorthodox way of portraying her subject. He is never shot straight on or interviewed per se. He is captured, very informally (how that informality was achieved is probably a high art in itself), in conversation with friends and family. These include, most prominently, Perlman’s wife, Toby, who is his biggest fan and one of the better explicators of his music—a.k.a. “what I heard when I asked him to marry me 50 years ago.” Which is a fairly convincing endorsement. “Itzhak” is, among other things, the portrait of an enviable marriage.

People who are actually fans of classical music will find little thrills throughout the movie: Perlman describing the finer points of Chinese takeout with pianist Evgeny Kissin and cellist Mischa Maisky in his Upper West Side apartment. Martha Argerich, who has probably been the best pianist in the world for 50 years as well as a highly elusive personality, plays with Perlman and discusses their friendship. There is an interlude with Billy Joel, who seems skeptical about Perlman’s musical suggestions during a rehearsal of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” at Citi Field, which does not say much for Joel, though he does acquiesce to what is quite obviously sound advice, no pun intended.

People who are fans of classical music will find little thrills throughout the movie.

Some of “Itzhak” is quite conventional, following the musician on his visits to some predictable spots and with predictable people: He flies to his homeland of Israel, performs with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic, makes a few embarrassed arguments about why he is meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu but also has a haunting exchange with Amnon Weinstein, the luthier quoted at the top of this piece. Weinstein has made it his mission to restore violins of the Holocaust, and in his shop in Tel Aviv, he shows Perlman the top, or face, of a violin he is restoring, the underside of which bears the legends “Heil Hitler,” “1936” and a swastika. It was a Jew’s violin, and a repairer had left his message inside.

“Make sure there are no strings there,” says Perlman.

“For the next 1,000 years,” answers Weinstein.

Other moments—all of them, obviously—are far less horrifying than the Nazified violin. Alan Alda drops by Perlman’s place to eat (“garbage soup,” which is made with leftovers), and the two kill a bottle of shiraz, their conversation becoming looser and even a bit more boisterous as the wine disappears. Alda and Perlman compare notes about polio—the disease that deprived the violinist of full use of his legs as a child—and Alda says he had it, too, and explains about having undergone the painful “Sister Kenny” treatments, which involved heat wraps and intensive massage developed by the eponymous Australian nurse. Perlman has never heard of Sister Kenny; he looks fascinated, maybe a little jealous.

After Chernick shows us the 13-year-old Itzhak’s performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (he played Mendelssohn), Perlman wonders about Sullivan’s motive for having had him on. It was, he guesses, “not purely for the way I played”—a brief, sad reflection on his handicap and notable for being one of the few in the movie. Perlman is obviously a musician, and human, of enormous drive and talent, though he does run into problems that, say, Jascha Heifetz, never had to deal with: a homeless guy passed out behind the door of a Paris recording studio’s only handicapped-accessible restroom, for instance. Or having a persistent T.S.A. agent grope suspiciously at the braces around his legs as he goes through airport security. These are the things that would try anyone’s patience. But Itzhak Perlman, clearly, has a lot more than most.

Correction, March 19: The director Alison Chernick has directed both short and full-length documentaries. Perlman encountered a homeless man in Paris, not Manhattan. 

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