One of the classical music world’s leading virtuosos receives a cinematic hug with the documentary “Itzhak” (2017). Billed as “a revealing scrapbook of his favorite stories, “Itzhak” moves through vignettes from his life, including his polio diagnosis at age 4, his breakthrough victory at the Leventritt Competition in 1964 and his five-decade marriage to Toby Friedlander, herself an accomplished violinist.
Sprinkled in between are testimonials from his friends, such as Alan Alda, Evgeny Kissin and Billy Joel, and segments on Perlman’s passions, such as his love of baseball, especially the New York Mets. It’s a musical portrait enclosed in “warmth, humor and above all, love.”
(A favorite at Symphony Center, Itzhak Perlman will appear twice this summer with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia: as soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto, conducted by Krzysztof Urbański, on Aug. 17, and then conducting the CSO in an all-Tchaikovsky program, including the 1812 Overture, on Aug. 18.)
On the official website for “Itzhak,” director Alison Chernick explains what drew her to this project. “I wanted to tell the untold story of Itzhak Perlman, the story of the ‘mensch’ behind the great musical talent,” she said. “There is so much more to this man than his musical virtuosity that you gather from his performances. I look for subjects that are dynamic with complex personalities. I knew that Itzhak Perlman could carry the film’s narrative in the style of filmmaking I prefer called cinéma vérité — without inserting ‘talking heads’ to give commentary where the viewer can unravel the subject on their own.
“As the director, my single goal is to get as intimate of a portrait as I can, to allow the audience to discover the artist alongside me. It’s always the most satisfying to see who this person is outside of their work, to see what informs their process. In Itzhak’s case, his tremendous spirit, soul and humanity is infused into his music to create that beautiful sound. His music starts in his heart and flows through his hands.”
Though Chernick has profiled artists such as Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein in previous documentaries, creating this portrait of Perlman was “a filmmaker’s dream,” she said. “[His artistry] seems to inspire people. I’m grateful to put this positive story into the world at a time when the world most needs it.”