‘Itzhak’ Premieres at Festival Opening

‘I’m going to be surprised to see what’s in the film. How do you put a hundred hours into an hour?’
Itzhak Perlman in a scene from “Itzhak,” a documentary having its world premiere as the opening night film of the Hamptons International Film Festival.

“You need to be able to hear it, otherwise nothing comes out. I’m not talking about quality; I’m talking about beauty. The violin is a fantastic instrument. It is a replica of the soul.”

These are the words of Itzhak Perlman, considered to be one of the finest virtuoso violinists living today, who has a celebrity status that is rare for a classical musician. He is the subject of a new documentary, “Itzhak,” which will be premiered next Thursday night at the opening of the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Alison Chernick, the director of the film, first met Mr. Perlman over two years ago. “As a documentarian, I saw a large character with huge passion and spirit. I wanted to explore the person behind this beautiful sound . . . I saw Jewish history, humor, discipline, drive, and, of course, amazing resilience and overcoming of obstacles, and I knew the story would be incredibly colorful,” she said last week.

Mr. Perlman was at first hesitant, but after seeing some of Ms. Chernick’s previous documentaries, which he liked a great deal, and “after some arm-twisting,” he said recently with a laugh, “I said, let’s do it . . . It was relatively painless.”

The filming took place over the span of a year. From November 2015 to the fall of 2016, Ms. Chernick followed Mr. Perlman around the world, from New York to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Paris, as he rehearsed, performed, cooked, made jokes, taught, and spent downtime with his wife and friends.

“She was omnipresent in all sorts of places,” Mr. Perlman said. “I would talk to the camera, and if I didn’t like what I said, I would say to her, ‘Editing-room floor!’ And she’d say, ‘Not necessarily,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, right on the floor!’ ”

After a year of filming, the editing began. “Editing is where the story really comes to life and the film comes to life, and that took another year,” said Ms. Chernick. “My style of production was not to impose a story where there already is a story, so it’s cinéma vérité in style.” 

The film also covers aspects of Mr. Perlman’s childhood (he had polio when he was 4, and though he uses crutches or a mobile scooter, he has never allowed that to hamper his incredibly full and active life); his teen years as a prodigy, including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 that put him in the international eye, and his early career. However, it is not a biography; it is more about discovering the human being who makes magnificent music. 

Whatever the master does, “he does it all with the same largeness of spirit and love for life,” Ms. Chernick said. The 82-minute film has moments that are touching, heartwarming, charming, amusing, poignant, philosophical, irrepressibly joyful, and uplifting.

Ms. Chernick has done documentaries about visual artists, including Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein, but this is her first film about a musician. “With visual artists, you usually ask, what is the soundtrack going to be,” but in this case “I’m not going to impose my music onto their craft. Obviously, we had this amazing soundtrack to work with.”

Mr. Perlman has often been seen on television, has been honored with four Emmy Awards, and has been the subject of a PBS documentary, “Fiddling for the Future,” about his work as a teacher and conductor at the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, for which he is highly regarded on the East End. The program was founded in 1994 by Mr. Perlman’s wife, Toby, to offer instruction and mentoring for exceptional young string players (ages 12 and up), with Mr. Perlman leading the world-class faculty. Though it features intensive summer programs and concerts for the public, it continues year round, with a series of concerts where “very talented kids come and play recitals” throughout the winter.

Mr. Perlman hadn’t seen the finished film as of last week, only a small part of it. “I’m going to be surprised to see what’s in the film,” he said. “There’s so much there, it’s enough for maybe eight documentaries. How do you put a hundred hours into an hour?”

He will be in attendance at Guild Hall next Thursday when “Itzhak” premieres at 7 p.m. The film will be shown on the same day at 7:30 p.m. at the East Hampton Cinema, and on Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Ticket information is at hamptonsfilmfest.org.

According to Ms. Chernick, the documentary will have its New York City premiere on Nov. 16; then it will be in theaters. It will be shown on the PBS TV series “American Masters” in March or April 2018, and will go abroad as well.

The film festival has created a new award, named in honor of Dick Cavett, and announced this week that Alec Baldwin will present Mr. Cavett himself with the first one during opening-night festivities. In other late-breaking festival news, the actress Annette Bening will participate on Oct. 8 in the festival’s Conversations With series.

Itzhak Perlman, shown conducting in “Itzhak,” runs a music school on Shelter Island with his wife, Toby Perlman.