December 11, 2018

‘Itzhak’ Documentary Shows the Personal Side of Violin Virtuoso

Israeli classical violinist Itzhak Perlman is one of the most revered and celebrated musicians of our time. He is the recipient of 16 Grammy Awards, four Emmy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Israel’s Genesis Prize.

He’s also a philanthropist, educator, observant Jew and devoted husband to Toby, his wife of 51 years, with whom he shares passions for music and the New York Mets. The new documentary “Itzhak” celebrates his genius while revealing the man behind it.

Filmed in cinema verité style over two years, it follows Perlman from his home in New York — where family photos line the elevator and autographed baseballs are displayed next to his awards — to Israel (twice) and to various engagements around the world.

Filmmaker Alison Chernick, who previously focused her lens on artists Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Schnabel, knew Perlman would be a great subject. “He is gregarious and warm and effusive with a large personality. I knew that he would be able to carry the film from start to finish without having to do talking head interviews,” she told the Journal.

Perlman initially hesitated to commit to the project but is glad he did. “[Chernick] captured pieces of our lives with a lot of honesty and accuracy,” he said in a telephone interview with his wife before a rehearsal in Florida.

“She knew what she was doing and blended into the background,” Toby said.  “We didn’t have one minute of aggravation.”

Archival and new footage of Perlman rehearsing and performing provided a built-in soundtrack and allowed Chernick to showcase the violinist’s extraordinary talent. “I want people to understand that the sound that he gets is not just the technical virtuosity,” she said. “He creates that music from all of the experiences and love and emotion that he has in his heart and it flows through his hands.”

“[Itzhak Perlman] creates that music from all of the experiences and love and emotion that he has in his heart and it flows through his hands.” — Alison Chernick

In addition to playing classical works in the film, Perlman sits in with Billy Joel at New York’s Madison Square Garden and plays the national anthem at a Mets game. “We were just at spring training and they asked me to play it again. But maybe I shouldn’t do it because every time I did, they lost the game,” Perlman said. “Maybe I’m bad luck for them.”

Perlman also plays his most requested and asked-about piece of music, John Williams’ theme to the film “Schindler’s List.” “No matter what place in the world I’m in, not necessarily in a Jewish community, it’s what they want to hear,” he said.

“When we listen to this theme, we think of the movie, we see the pictures in our mind and respond to that,” Toby added. “The music is a trigger for that, [especially] for the Jewish community.”

For Perlman, seen celebrating Shabbat in the film, his Jewish identity is paramount. “Everything else comes after that,” Toby said, applying the statement to both of them.

Although she describes herself as “culturally Jewish, not religious at all,” filmmaker Chernick said that it was helpful to have an “understanding of Shabbat and what makes a Jewish person a Jewish person” in connecting with the Perlmans. It was important to her to convey their connection to Judaism, Israel “and how much that connects to family and his value system.”

Perlman visits Israel at least once a year (he is headed there later this month) to perform, conduct and teach students in conjunction with the Perlman Music Program, which Toby founded in 1995. In the documentary, he visits his childhood neighborhood in Tel Aviv and accepts the 2016 Genesis Prize from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Perlman donated the million dollars he received to fund arts education in Israel and disability initiatives in North America.

At age 4, Perlman contracted polio and gets around today on crutches and a motorized scooter. But travel — or as seen in the film, navigating a snowy street — can be very difficult for him. He finds that “awareness has improved, but there’s still a lack of knowledge” about access in public areas for the disabled. While well-intentioned, he believes the Americans with Disabilities Act makes matters worse by taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Putting “a couple of bars in a bathroom is not enough,” he said.

Born in 1945 to Zionist parents who had separately fled from Poland to Palestine and met there, Perlman relocated with his family to New York in 1958 so he could study at the Juilliard School. He was 17 when he met Toby, also a violinist, in a summer music program. They’ve been on the same wavelength for five decades.

“Something that always happens with us, if we listen to music, for example, we don’t have to discuss how we feel about it because we speak the same language. We think the same way,” Perlman said. “It’s understood, with no words.”

“I think it helps when you have the same values,” his wife said. “Respect is very important. I may be annoyed with my husband almost all the time but he’s the best person I know, and that sustains me through all the annoyance.” Both of them laughed at that.

Parents to five children, including a professional pianist, and grandparents to 12, one of whom plays classical cello, the Perlmans have one child’s wedding and a grandson’s bar mitzvah to look forward to this fall.

Meanwhile, after celebrating Passover in Israel, Perlman will do a concert tour this spring, including Los Angeles dates at Walt Disney Hall on May 12 and 14. He will return to play the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 21.

“I’m not just playing the violin. I’m teaching and conducting, and that keeps my interest level high and keeps me excited,” Perlman said, satisfied with his full plate. “The most important thing is not to be jaded by what you’ve done for such a long time.”

“Itzhak” opens March 16 at Laemmle’s Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. PBS will air it in October to coincide with National Disabilities Month.