‘Itzhak’ is delightful inside look at acclaimed violinist

Itzhak Perlman performs the National Anthem at Citi Field. Photo courtesy Greenwich Entertainment

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Itzhak,” a charming, music-filled documentary about violinist Itzhak Perlman, opens in an unexpected way — not with a performance of Beethoven or Mozart, but a slightly sassy rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” 

The setting and Perlman’s attire are different, too. The virtuoso is wearing a Mets baseball cap and jersey at Citi Field in New York. Cardinals fans might do well to overlook the Mets gear and just revel in that fact that Perlman is so obviously nuts about baseball. 

That opening sheds light on the personality of this world-famous musical genius. The way he navigates the ballpark, tooling down a  hallway in his motorized wheelchair, says something about his joy of  life and his grit. His Mets jersey, “Perlman” emblazoned on the back, and his enthusiasm in greeting a ballplayer proclaim his love of the game that so many St. Louisans love so well. 

“Itzhak” is a joyous film and a real treat for music lovers. Breezy and informal, it gives us glimpses into his life at home in his New York apartment with Toby, his musician wife of 50 years, and their two dogs. We meet family, friends and fellow musicians, gain perspective on the way he teaches, and we follow him on the road, rehearsing and playing concerts, including one with Billy Joel, in the United States and in Israel. 

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

The violinist recounts some of his experiences growing up in Israel, and how, as a child survivor of polio who lost the use of his legs, he faced discrimination as he pursued his musical ambitions.

Above all, we get music — wonderful, soaring, thrilling music. Director Alison Chernick does the audience a favor by displaying the names of the musical pieces Perlman is playing in subtitles, a nice touch.

Chernick’s film is not a biopic. Those seeking a detailed picture of Perlman’s life and career won’t find it here. The documentary is more like a day in his life, although it is more than one day, in which  we simply share time with Perlman. But we do get some details about his early life, mostly told by him, his wife and an influential teacher. Perlman’s lively humor is ever-present, as is his strong sense of Jewish identity as an Israeli American. 

With touching openness and some self-deprecating humor, Perlman describes his struggle as a gifted child stricken with polio. He talks about how his parents, immigrants to Israel from Poland, drove him hard to use his amazing gift, joking that he obviously “wasn’t going to be a tennis player.” 

Yet as talented as he was, great musicians visiting Israel would hear him play, acknowledge his gift but decline to recommend him for further studies at schools such as Juilliard, unable to see past his disability. A chance appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” finally led to opening the door to Juilliard.

The documentary offers archival footage of a young Perlman in concert, talking about music or receiving honors such as the Medal of Freedom he received from President Barack Obama. At one point, he is at home talking about music with a shelf of Grammys in the background (he’s received 16). Perlman’s humanitarian work has earned him accolades as well.

Some of the most charming moments of the film show Perlman visiting Tel Aviv, where he grew up, and enthusiastically playing tour guide, recounting tidbits of Israeli history. He has an infectious enthusiasm as he visits a violin shop he remembers as a boy and talks violins and Jewish history with the shop owner. Perlman’s curiosity and creativity makes following him around and listening to him entertaining in itself.

Toby is a strong presence in this documentary, and one is warmed by the closeness of the couple and their joyous devotion to family and their Jewish faith. Toby says they share a love of music and baseball and never run out of things to talk about. 

“Itzhak” is a delightful film whether one is a music fan or not, filled with humor, inspiration and Itzhak Perlman’s charm, humor and humanity, as well as his glorious music.