ITZHAK – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Alison Chernick
Cast:  Itzhak Perlman, Toby Perlman, Alan Alda, Amnon Weisntein, Stefan Valcuha, Billy Joel, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman, Evgeny Kissin, the Klezmatics
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/2/18
Opens: March 16, 2018

Itzhak poster

Why do so many Jews play violin? That’s a question dealt with in this intriguing documentary about the career of Itzhak Perlman.  Answer: Because it’s the easiest instrument to carry when you have to run away.  There’s dark humor in that, though a case could be made for the piccolo, but who’s worried about such trivia when you have a film that burrows into the life of one of the greatest violinists of (probably) all time?

Itzhak Perlman, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1945 while it was part of the British mandate of Palestine, had parents who were natives of Poland and who had independently immigrated to Palestine (later Israel) in the mid-1930s.  Lucky parents!  Had they remained in Poland, they would have been shipped into a German concentration camp, and then, no Itzhak.

Perlman is a terrific subject for a documentary like this one because he combines the playing of several classical pieces as though descended from an angel–and for good measure he is a charmer.  And so is his wife Toby, who fell in love with him while still enjoying the benefits of youth.  When they married, Itzhak Perlman is in crutches as he had contacted polico at the age of four.  We see him in this film mostly wheeling himself around in an electric Amigo scooter, and he performs seated whether on the Ed Sullivan show, with Johnny Carson, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in Lincoln Center, and even in a baseball park where he wows the crowd with his rendition of our National Anthem, shown to the tens of thousands at the game on a huge screen.  (Perlman is a baseball fan who sometimes watches parts of the games during breaks in concerts.)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice. That’s the watchword that good parents tell their kids when they want them to practice for eight hours a day, but alas, you have to have talent as well if you want to be a concert pianist and you might count on the fingers and toes the number of Americans who have excelled in piano or violin, good enough to play throughout the world as did Perlman.

The film has sometimes been called “Itzhak and Toby” since his charming wife who appears at his side and serves as his muse chats with the movie audience about cooking, about her husband of course, and in groups with their friends where they live on New York’s Upper West Side.  Occasionally Perlman chats with celebrities over tall glasses of red wine, the most endearing being Alan Alda. As the two converse about what it means to grow old, Alda frequently tips his head back and laughs out loud.

The conversations are as compelling as music.  During the all-too-brief 83 minutes, Perlman plays parts from the output of Tchaikowsky, Bruch, Vivaldi, Strauss, Mendelsohn, Mozart, Bach, Schubert and others, particularly enjoying the hours he teaches gifted students such as the young people at the Julliard School in Lincoln Center.

One scene particularly enlightening has Perlman converse with a man who makes his living restoring violins, and of course the word “Stradivarius” will be part of the dialogue as the restorer notes that one violin shown to him by Perlman has a defect that makes it play actually better than one in top condition.

The project features laid-back editing, shifting from Perlman in present days back to his youth where at the age of thirteen he astonished the audience of the Ed Sullivan show, playing with the virtuosity and emotional maturity of a kid who had probably recently been bar-mitzvahed.

Unrated.  83 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-