Inside 'Itzhak’: Interview with Alison Chernick about Her Documentary on Itzhak Perlman

March 6, 2018, 11:01 AM · "Judge me by what I do, but don't judge me by what I can't do," violinist Itzhak Perlman says early in the new documentary called "Itzhak," which opens later this week in selected theaters across the United States.

The documentary, directed by Alison Chernick, shows that for Perlman, who has reached a rare kind of superstar status in his half-century career as a classical violinist, "what I can do" has been a life-long, ever-expanding concept.

While showing scenes from his whole career, Chernick paints a picture largely of Perlman's current life, making it clear that at age 72 Perlman continues to blow the idea of "limitations" out of the water. And she does not gloss over the fact that while he has been blazing an extraordinary path, he's been doing it in leg braces and a wheelchair, a legacy of childhood polio, which left him with a crippling disability at age four. He's had to conquer not only the considerable challenges of his chosen career path, but also to deal with a host of logistical problems and at times the limiting attitudes of others.

After watching a preview of the documentary, I spoke last Friday with Chernick about what it was like to follow Perlman in his travels and daily life, and how she came to understand his story.

"Right away I was attracted to Itzhak as a subject, to him and (his wife) Toby as a duo," Chernick said. "I'm a Jewish filmmaker, and his story is very Jewish and that was certainly one of the things that attracted me, and obviously the music. I knew that he was honest, vulnerable, sincere and funny, and I was very attracted to the humor -- I think people need that lightness. Yet at the same time, his story has incredible gravity: how he overcame adversity and how he made his way in the world. To be told with a little bit of humor, for me, was just the cherry on top."

Alison Chernick, Itzhak and Toby Perlman
Filmmaker Alison Chernick with Itzhak and Toby Perlman.

For the film, Chernick and her crew shot about 100 hours of footage, beginning in November 2015 in Washington D.C. with Perlman accepting his Presidential Medal of Freedom Award from President Barack Obama.

Besides, D.C., "I went to Israel with him twice, I went to California with him, to Sonoma, Napa, we did this whole wine-tasting day which actually didn't make it into the film. We went to Miami, to Paris. We shot for about a year and started editing in between, so that we knew what we had. And then we edited for a whole year. So it was two years, start to finish." Chernick said. "Itzhak always says there's so much footage, we could have 'Return of Itzhak,' we could have 'Itzhak Part 2' -- we joke about that."

Like Perlman's life, the film is a kaleidoscope of remarkable scenes: the movie itself begins with Perlman playing for the opening of a Mets game. It goes on to show Perlman playing trios with Mischa Maisky and Evgeny Kissin in his living room; Perlman chatting with Toby, his wife of 50+ years, as she makes a cauliflower casserole in the kitchen. We see Perlman playing "Allentown" and "We Didn't Start the Fire" at a Billy Joel concert, performing the Bruch Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and accepting the Genesis Prize, having wine with Alan Alda, conducting a student orchestra at Juilliard, doing a recording session with Martha Argerich, celebrating Jewish holidays with family; teaching at the Perlman Music Program, playing klezmer music at a party... Chernick lays it out Cinema Verité style, allowing the action to speak for itself.

We also see difficult moments; for example, going through airport security. TSA agents closely inspect his leg braces, and he has to explain that no, he cannot remove the shoes that are attached to them.

"We had to sneak that shot," Chernick said. "We had the camera riding on one of the suitcases, as our tripod."

Does that happen every time he travels?

"Sometimes he'll fly private, but yes, if he flies commercial he has to go through that, and it's really torturous," Chernick said. "Sometimes it's 10 times worse than what you saw in the film. There is a lot of waiting around, and he's incredibly patient."

The film also includes archival footage.

"We wanted to give just enough history to give you the context of his story but without being really a biography," Chernick said. "There was a film on (Perlman) in the '70s that covered him up until his 30s and I was kind of doing the next part: the story about now.

One striking use of archive is the inclusion of his 1958 performance on the Ed Sullivan show, a huge triumph in which 13-year-old Perlman plays the last movement of Wieniawski Concerto No. 2 with astonishing ease and fluidity, not to mention personal composure. Juxtaposed is a present-day conversation between Itzhak and Toby.

"We never discussed Sullivan's reasons for taking me," says present-day Perlman, looking steadily at Toby, "and I don't know whether we agree on this or not, whether it was purely because of the way I played..."

"No," she says firmly and without hesitation. "It was poor little crippled boy kind of thing. But anybody who heard that, any musician who heard that knew that it didn't have anything to do with 'crippled;' it didn't have anything to do with anything other than 'gift.'"

Toby and Itzhak
Toby and Itzhak Perlman. Image from the documentary "Itzhak."

Toby is a strong presence everywhere - the voice of honesty and encouragement, the green-room critic, founder of the Perlman Music Program, beloved wife, mother and grandmother, partner for life. She tends to nail it on the head: We see Perlman's gift. Not just the considerable gift of his music, but the gift of his grace and wit. Chernick's documentary Itzhak illustrates it beautifully.

* * *
Itzhak opens on March 16 in New York and Los Angeles and will continue to open in more theatres thereafter. For showtimes and theater locations, please click here. It also is scheduled on PBS's American Masters series this October.

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March 6, 2018 at 10:36 PM · Recently I saw a video about a Yitzhak Perlman, called "Wordmaker". The guy's full name was Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, and he changed it to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was responsible for the existence of Hebrew as a modern language in everyday life. I don't think he played the violin, certainly not as well as Itzhak Perlman.

March 7, 2018 at 06:38 AM · When will the film go on some kind of global release? Keep seeing all these great reviews and interviews, and would love to see it here in the UK.

March 7, 2018 at 06:59 AM · John - wow, who knew? :)

About seeing it in the UK — is it possible to get PBS shows in the UK? The documentary is scheduled to be released in the US on PBS’s American Masters series in October, so perhaps it will be possible to see it through a service that streams PBS. If I hear anything further I will post it here!

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