From Shubert to Strauss, Bach to… Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman’s transcendent violin playing evokes the depth of the human experience. This enchanting documentary details the virtuoso’s own struggles as a polio survivor and Jewish émigré, and reminds us why art is vital to life.
Why Itzhak Perlman? What about him drew you to him?
Aside from Itzhak Perlman’s great musical talent, I look for subjects that are dynamic with complex personalities. It allows me to avoid the interview style of ”talking heads.” I knew that Itzhak could carry this film without needing others to fill in the gaps – and he would be highly entertaining. And I was right.
You have profiled contemporary artists in your previous films. What made this a unique experience, and why make it a feature-length film?
The process for me of unraveling a character or an artist is the same no matter the craft. As the director, my single goal is to get as intimate a portrait as I can, to reveal to the audience the inside story. Something that you don’t get just watching a concert. It’s always the most satisfying to see who this person is outside of their work, and the persona that informs their work. In Itzhak’s case, his tremendo us spirit, soul and humanity is infused into his music to create that beautiful sound.
What role does music play in the film?
The music was a filmmaker’s dream. Itzhak is in fact so much more than his music, so it became this beautiful thread to weave his story together.
How long did you shoot for? Was it difficult to gain access to the people and places that you wanted to include in the film?
We shot for a year on and off — it just happened to be his 70th year so there was a lot happening. It was a story of great timing. Then we edited for a year. Regarding access — he’s very loved, so it made getting access easy.
You had access to Itzhak’s personal life. How did you choose which moments to use for the film?
It was a very organic process. The moments chose themselves, the film took on a personality and dictated what it needed. When we would watch a rough cut my editor and I would have the same instincts if something was missing or if something was too much.
How much archival footage did you have to review while putting together the film? How did you decide what to use in the final version?
We wanted the film to be present day but there were some archival clips that were too precious to leave out — so there’s about ten percent of archival footage in the film.
Itzhak’s wife, Toby Perlman, has a prominent voice in the film. Why did you choose to incorporate so much of her?
“Behind every great man there’s a great woman.” This famous quote couldn’t be more truthful in their case. Toby has a great sense about her and Itzhak really feeds off of that. They are a perfect duo. There would be no film without Toby. At one point the film was even called Itzhak and Toby, but it ultimately put too much pressure on her character.
Itzhak is very aware of his identity as a Jewish man in a rapidly-changing New York City. Did you intend to capture this narrative from the beginning or was this something you uncovered while shooting?
I didn’t have many intentions at the beginning. I try to avoid this sort of fixed agenda so as to allow the film to move freely and let it become what it may. Albert Maysles once said, “asking someone what their film will be before they shoot it is like asking an infant what they will be when they grow up.” It takes all the magic out. The only way your story develops is through the constant observation of the lens, so the Jewish angle for me became prominent after getting to know my subject and my footage intimately.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
I hope they are inspired by what incredible role models for humanity the Perlmans are. I certainly am.
About Itzhak Perlman
One of the only household names in classical music today, Itzhak Perlman, undeniably the reigning virtuoso of the violin, enjoys superstar status rarely afforded a classical musician. Beloved for his charm and humanity as well as his talent, he is treasured by audiences throughout the world who respond not only to his remarkable artistry but also to his irrepressible joy of music-making and communicating with audiences.
Having performed with every major orchestra and at venerable concert halls around the globe, Perlman was granted a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama in 2015, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003, a National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 2000, and a Medal of Liberty by President Reagan in 1986. In 2009, Perlman was honored to take part in the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, premiering a piece written for the occasion by John Williams alongside cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero, for an audience of nearly 40 million television viewers in the United States and millions more throughout the world. In 2007, he performed at a State Dinner for Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, hosted by President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush at the White House.
A major presence in the performing arts on television, Perlman has received four Emmy Awards, including one for the PBS documentary Fiddling for the Future, a film about the Perlman Music Program and his work as a teacher and conductor there. Founded in 1993, the Perlman Music Program offers unparalleled musical training to young string players through intensive summer programs and mentoring.
Perlman has entertained and enlightened millions of television viewers of all ages on popular shows including The Late Show with David Letterman, Sesame Street, The Frugal Gourmet, The Tonight Show and multiple Grammy Awards telecasts. During the 78th Annual Academy Awards in 2006, Perlman performed a live medley from the five film scores nominated in the category of Best Original Score for a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions.
Having garnered 16 Grammy Awards over the years with his best-selling recordings, Perlman was honored in 2008 with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in the recording arts.
Born in Israel in 1945, Perlman completed his initial training at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. He came to New York and soon was propelled into the international arena with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. Following his studies at the Juilliard School, Perlman won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in 1964, which led to a burgeoning worldwide career.
Numerous publications and institutions have paid tribute to Itzhak Perlman for the unique place he occupies in the artistic and humanitarian fabric of our times. Harvard, Yale, Brandeis, Roosevelt, Yeshiva and Hebrew universities are among the institutions
which have awarded him honorary degrees. He was awarded an honorary doctorate and a centennial medal on the occasion of Juilliard’s 100th commencement ceremony in May 2005.
About Alison Chernick
In award winning documentaries profiling major contemporary artists, Chernick has succeeded in capturing the thoughts and processes of this century’s most prolific visual artists. Creating a bridge between contemporary art and film, Chernick initially conceived a series profiling artists for television, and launched an artist expose series for Rainbow-Media with her first feature film entitled THE JEFF KOONS SHOW. THE JEFF KOONS SHOW went on to have international theatrical distribution and is available on iTunes. She completed her second feature length documentary on contemporary artist Matthew Barney entitled MATTHEW BARNEY: NO RESTRAINT which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and was acquired for theatrical distribution by IFC and The Weinstein Company. Her short film THE ARTIST IS ABSENT on artist/designer Martin Margiela premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. Her most recent feature, ITZHAK, was awarded opening night film at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2017 and will have a theatrical run before airing on American Masters Pictures/PBS in Spring of 2018. Chernick is known for creating compelling portraits using cinema verite style.
Amongst other commissions, the Tate modern commissioned her to do a film on Roy Lichtenstein to accompany his retrospective in 2012. Her art documentaries have been screened at various museums around the world, including the five Guggenheims, The Smithsonian, SFMOMA, and The Walker. She is the recipient of a NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR HUMANITIES award in 2017 for ITZHAK, the 2017 recipient of the NYWIFT (New York Women in Film and Television), along with a Loreen Arbus grant and a Woman of Her Word grant. Other awards include a Patricia Highsmith-Plangman residency award, a Promax award for HBO and a Best Screenwriter award for a short film.
Chernick’s past writing credits include the Sundance Channel, Showtime, Sci-Fi, MTV, VH1, The History Channel, and National Geographic. Chernick started Voyeur Films, a film production company in 2005. She was signed for global representation in commercial directing in 2011. She does short films on topics of art, fashion, music, gastronomy and healthcare. She is currently working on a narrative film.