Capturing a giant

A new film spotlights a superlative musician and exceptional human who happens to use crutches.

PERLMAN ENJOYS a good laugh with actor Alan Alda in a scene from ‘Itzhak.’ (photo credit: GREENWICH ENTERTAINMENT)
PERLMAN ENJOYS a good laugh with actor Alan Alda in a scene from ‘Itzhak.’
In the disabilities world, we learn the importance of using person- first language. A person is not “wheelchair-bound,” rather he is a person who may also be a father, lawyer and expert Scrabble player who uses a wheelchair. He or she is not defined by the disability, rather, it is one aspect of the person, who also has many talents and strengths.
There is a very famous Sesame Street episode from 1981 where world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman appears in a moving segment that illustrates this point. A young girl effortlessly runs up some steps to a platform and sits down with her violin. Perlman climbs the same steps with difficulty, using crutches.
“Some things that are really easy for you are really hard for me,” comments Perlman, who sits next to the girl and plays his Stradivarius in the magnificent manner viewers would expect. The girl, a beginner on the violin, replies, “Yes, but some things that are easy for you are hard for me.”
Perlman, 73, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from president Barack Obama, four Emmy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in the recording arts and the 2016 Genesis Prize – often referred to as “the Jewish Nobel” and carrying a $1 million award – has spent decades showing the world the many strengths of a man who happens to have contracted polio at the age of four.
Now, thanks to the delightful, recently released film Itzhak by director/ producer Alison Chernick, viewers spend 83 colorful minutes with Perlman in a wide range of settings and time periods, from his childhood in Israel, where he walked with leg braces and completed his initial training at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv, to his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 after he was discovered in a talent search in Israel, to his move to America where he attended the Juilliard School.
Perhaps most exciting is seeing Perlman doing ordinary as well as exciting and somewhat unexpected activities, including navigating the streets of Manhattan in a motorized scooter during a snowstorm, rehearsing (and eating Chinese food) in his townhouse with fellow musicians, bantering with Toby, his powerhouse wife of 50 years, sipping wine in his home with actor Alan Alda, sitting in his scooter on the field at a New York Mets baseball game (in a “Perlman” jersey), and rehearsing on stage at Madison Square Garden with singer Billy Joel.
There is a beautiful scene shot in a violin shop in Tel Aviv. “My cinematographer, Daniel Kedem, who lives in Tel Aviv, knew about this violin shop that happened to be on Perlman’s childhood block,” says Chernick, the award-winning writer and director of documentaries profiling contemporary artists and with credits including The Jeff Koons Show, Matthew Barney: No Restraint and The Artist is Absent.
“The shop is Amnon Weinstein’s – a wonderful man who restores violins and has been sent many violins from the concentration camps,” says Chernick. Perlman, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Poland, is shown many unique violins, including one with a swastika hidden inside.
“He brought this extra level of gravity to the film by giving us the history of these violins, which created a narrative platform for us to dive into Jewish history through these violins.”
Itzhak opened in New York City on March 8 and in Los Angeles on March 16; and will open in San Francisco on April 6. The schedule of openings in other cities is at Chernick is pleased to report the film will soon premiere in Israel.”
Docaviv, the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, is the largest film festival in Tel Aviv and the only festival in Israel dedicated exclusively to documentaries.
Making a film about Perlman was clearly no easy task.
“The more celebrated the subject, the more pressure there is to deliver in a manner that justifies his legacy,” notes Chernick. She carefully completed all filming, digested the content and finally decided on the actual story to tell.
“For me, what became transparent after seeing my footage over and over again, were themes of Jewish identity, Jewish history, humor, love, love for life, love between Perlman and Toby and of course a shared love for music. These themes all emerged as unique story lines that would resonate independently.”
Itzhak is entertaining, enjoyable and filled with beautiful real-life scenes. Chernick covers a lot of ground. Yet, viewers expecting a comprehensive, year-by-year unfolding of Perlman’s life may be disappointed. An additional gap is not explaining what exactly sets him apart from hundreds of other talented violinists. How did Perlman – and not others – come to achieve this level of greatness? Viewers didn’t seem bothered by such omissions.
They were happy to catch a sneak peek at the film at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan on February 13, nearly a full month before its release date, and they were treated to a Q and A with Perlman and his wife. They were amused that Perlman (who has likely seen the movie dozens of times) came a few minutes late, as he was looking for parking, and they loved his sense of humor as he apologized for wearing the same sports jacket that evening that he wore throughout the film.
After answering questions about whether he and Toby put up any boundaries in the filming and how they chose the musical selections, Perlman, the accomplished violinist who happens to have a physical disability, spoke passionately and openly about the lack of accessibility he has experienced on planes, in bathrooms, in hotel rooms and in nearly every place he has traveled around the world.
“I feel in many ways, those who are supposed to make things accessible are literally clueless! I would like to organize a seminar and discuss what it means to have accessible living spaces. We should be ashamed of ourselves – the richest country in the world….”
The talented, thoughtful Perlman left the audience with an important observation.
“We all have different problems and needs.”
In Itzhak and in person, Perlman offers a glimpse in to how we can begin to overcome these challenges.