In the opening scenes of Itzhak, a new documentary about violinist Itzhak Perlman, Perlman wheels his way through the bowels of Citifield prior to the start of a 2016 Mets game. Wearing his Mets cap backward and sporting a jersey with his name on the back, Perlman, who uses an electric wheelchair, is clearly a baseball fan. Prior to playing the National Anthem, he goofs around with the players during batting practice and unleashes an impromptu rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It's a great opening scene.
Credit director Alison Chernick with endearing Perlman to us before she even introduces us to his remarkable story. The feel-good film opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Perlman's parents emigrated from Poland to Israel and nurtured their son's musical talent. And yet, Perlman struggled to be taken seriously as a music student because a bout with polio had left him disabled. "People heard me play and said, 'Oh yes, very nice, but he's disabled,'" Perlman recalls. Perlman says even his parents were close to giving up on him. An appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show changed everything, and in the wake of that performance, Perlman would gradually receive the acclaim he deserved.
Most of the film centers on Perlman's current life. At the White House, President Barack Obama introduces him to an audience, saying he "makes the world a little more beautiful" with his playing. In another scene, he rehearses with pop star Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. Joel defers to him and lets Perlman rearrange his hit "We Didn't Start the Fire," turning it into what Joel describes as an Irish jig. In an informal conversation that takes place over a glass of wine and a bowl of soup, Perlman and actor Alan Alda compare notes on how they approach their respective crafts.
Perlman's wife Toby figures prominently in the film too, and we see how deep the connection between the two is. "Marriage was a most natural thing," she says in one interview when asked about how their friendship turned into something romantic. She and Perlman share a love of music and even run a charity designed to help children appreciate music and develop the kind of skills that will help them in all aspects of life. "You have to have the ability to evolve," Perlman says as he describes the program's goals.
And, of course, there's the music. Chernick captures Perlman in many contexts and settings and includes plenty of scenes that show him playing. In one of the most poignant scenes, Perlman performs on violins from the Holocaust that Israeli violinmaker Amnon Weinstein has restored. Through it all, Perlman's ability carries with it an enormous amount of personality. Whether he's performing in a sports arena or in a concert hall, he plays with a great deal of passion. Be sure to sit through the credits to hear more of the music and watch Perlman walk his dogs through Central Park while riding in his electric wheelchair.