Alison Chernick’s uplifting documentary about virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman, Itzhak, is a marvel of sight and sound. Opening at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on April 6, it’s a moving portrait of a gifted musician who’s devoted to his craft and his family and whose overarching goal is to pass on his fount of knowledge to promising students.
A garrulous figure who revels in the company of people, he’s seen in a series of eclectic situations. At a cavernous baseball stadium, Perlman, a fanatical fan, plays a rollicking, crowd-pleasing short piece. In his home in Manhattan, he practices with a pianist and a cellist. In Tel Aviv, his birthplace, he visits a violin maker. At a recording session, he launches into a Bruch concerto. And at a concert with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta, he performs beautifully.
In subsequent scenes, he gives a master class to a group of students, rehearses with the rock star Billy Joel, kibbitzes with the actor and comedian Alan Alda, accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony, meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife for dinner in Jerusalem, and enjoys a Shabbat meal with his wife, son and grandchildren.
The most sublime moments in this endearing film occur when Perlman, his early 18th century Stradivarius in hand, plays the enchanting music of Bach, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms and Williams. Effortlessly coaxing sweet, melodic and tender notes from an instrument he poetically describes as “a replica of the soul,” Perlman is a master of the violin.
“I love the sound,” he says.
“The more you have in your heart, the more you can give,” he adds later on.
The son of Polish Jews who settled in Palestine in the 1930s, Perlman was born in 1945. He was a child protege, but a childhood struggle with polio almost ruined his chance to shine. Even those in awe of his natural abilities were not certain whether he possessed the tenacity to overcome his disability.
Perlman proved the doubters wrong, of course, but the debilitating disease that almost wrecked his career has had a residual impact. To this day, he walks with crutches and uses a scooter to get around.
He was 13 years old when he and his mother left Israel so that he could study at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. His prodigious talents were such that he was invited to appear on the popular Ed Sullivan variety show. A black-and-white clip shows a chubby, self-confident boy wowing the audience with a stellar performance.
His teacher at Julliard, Dorothy DeLay, was certainly impressed by his aptitude for the violin. “It was just amazing,” she recalls. “I fell in love with him.”
Eternally grateful to his teachers, Perlman is keen to impart his expertise to the younger generation of up-and-coming violinists. He believes that his skill as a teacher has burnished his technique.
Perlman’s wife of 50 years, Toby, a musician herself, is his constant companion. She met him when she was 17, fell hopelessly in love with him and proposed marriage. “The common thing for us was the music,” she says.
Yes, the music.
Itzhak, 82 minutes in length, overflows with melodious sounds that warm the heart and perk up the mind. And at its center of it all is a brilliant violinist who always hits the right notes.