2018, NR, 82 min. Directed by Alison Chernick.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 25, 2018
Pleasant. If you had to reduce this biographical documentary of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman to one word, it would be pleasant. Perlman himself is a wonderfully pleasant human being. His wife of many decades, Toby, seems like a genuinely pleasant person. He has many very pleasant friends. And it is pleasant to spend a little over an hour in his company.
If this sounds snide, far from it. Pleasant has become a dismissive, diminutive term. There was a time when exchanging pleasantries was a sign of civility, and now it's intended to imply superficiality. Pleasant has become small praise, or a backhanded compliment. But Perlman reminds us that being pleasant is a great thing. After all, he has had all the excuses in the world to become unpleasant. He is a musical genius, which has often been a justification for tyrannical and abusive behavior. His body was mangled by polio as a child, and now he must traverse his adopted home of New York on a motorized scooter. He grew up Jewish in a century of anti-Semitism. But if Itzhak teaches us one thing, it's that he has avoided everything that could have been an impediment or a barrier to living a contented life.
In this profile by Chernick, who previously tackled more radical talents in The Jeff Koons Show and Matthew Barney: No Restraint, there is no searing insight into the causes and burdens of genius. Instead, the affable maestro demurs on the topic, treating it like a happy accident. Drama is aberrant, and restricted to the complexities of getting his scooter through NYC snow drifts. He’d much rather be cracking open a fortune cookie, or talking about his charitable work, or hanging out at the dinner table with Alan Alda, or telling the same corny joke to anyone who will listen, or playing his instrument – whether it’s with Billy Joel or a high school band, all is well.
Sometimes it's hard to tell why Chernick felt that Perlman was the suitable topic for her third full-length documentary. She has chronicled other creative greats for the Nowness arts videography network, and often achieved as much insight in five minutes as she does here in a feature. Admittedly, it's an odd criticism to make, but she gives perfect insight into Perlman in the opening moments, showing him having take-out with friends, and then there's not much left to add in the following 70 minutes. It’s charming rather than captivating, a fine sketch rather than a finished portrait.