Film Review: Itzhak

Highly intelligent and warm portrait of the most haimische virtuoso who ever lived.
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Insofar as delivering unstinting joy on the planet, there are few to equal violinist Itzhak Perlman. The intelligence, brio and formidable emotion he has brought to his playing for decades have made him a human treasure, not to mention the generations of aspiring virtuoos he has guided with humor and sensitivity.

Perlman’s impressive, inspirational journey is charted in Alison Chernick‘s affectionate documentary Itzhak, which begins with the diligent child prodigy first picking up the violin in his birthplace, Tel Aviv. His natural aptitude was undeniable and recognized early on, but that did not mean that his artistic path was an easy one. In those dark, less tolerant days, the fact that he was crippled from polio (since age four) kept him from being taken seriously, regardless of his dazzling gifts.

An appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1958 when Perlman was 13, however, gave him the right kind of attention. He zipped through Mendelssohn’s concerto entrancingly and won the hearts of all who saw him, as Juilliard finally welcomed him. His teacher, Dorothy Delay, is on hand to describe an intractable boy, full of attitude, when they met, but when he played, “I fell in love with him.” Perlman confesses to having hated her, because, instead of dictating to him, as did his autocratic teachers in Tel Aviv, she encouraged him to figure things out for himself. Now, he admits, he uses her technique with his own students, and we see this in glowingly in action at the Shelter Island music conservatory he runs.

Toby, Mrs. Perlman, is really the co-star of the doc, smart, affable and ever-present. She admits to having been besotted by Itzhak when they were teenagers the moment she heard him play at summer camp, and even proposed marriage to him at age 17. There was a romantic hiccup or two before her dream came true, but it did. They raised what looks to be a quite happy and well-adjusted family, who still genuinely enjoy each other’s close company after a lifetime together. A charming straight-shooter, she travels and makes personal appearances with her husband and is still, she says, a “goner” for his music, which she describes as “like breathing, like being alive.”

As for Perlman, the cherubically handsome prodigy has aged into a sometimes almost Yoda-like, corny-joke-cracking music sage, motoring suavely around New York on his swiftly perambulating wheelchair, pretty much the easy master of every situation, be it receiving a Presidential honor from Obama, meeting various heads of state, rehearsing with Billy Joel for a Madison Square Garden appearance, playing humorously dramatic variations on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for his beloved Mets at Citi Field, or genially feeding his guests Chinese takeout in his spacious and homey Manhattan Upper West Side digs. One of those guests is actor Alan Alda and the exchange the two have about their respective bouts with childhood polio is one of the few points in the movie that deal with Perlman’s disability. Alda overcame the disease though what he calls the “Sister Kenny” method, which involved brutally painful physical therapy, while Perlman scoffs at the useless mumbo-jumbo of the primitive treatment he received in Israel. 

But the entire film is more or a less a rebuke to polio or, indeed, any affliction that might hinder an artist such as Perlman, whose sheer drive, ferocious focus and jaw-dropping energy have not only overcome but obviously triumphed over it. Although the snatches of glorious music you hear in the movie grab your heart in the way he describes, as a miracle for which any human being can only be grateful, the one flaw of the film is not including at least one full-length live performance of this maestro to fully convey the magic he has made—on a very tight, ever-booked international schedule—his entire life.

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