Good music and good company make “Itzhak” a pleasure, though those seeking a methodical career overview should look elsewhere than this genial personality sketch of the world-famous violinist. Alison Chernick’s documentary captures the Manhattan-dwelling subject at home and on tour around the globe, hobnobbing with classical colleagues as well as the likes of close friend Alan Alda and former POTUS Obama. It’s a portrait custom-made for public television (and duly co-produced by PBS’ American Masters), though one that would also appeal to a select audience in limited theatrical exposure.
Itzhak Perlman was born in 1945 Tel Aviv to Polish émigré parents who were non-musical, though they quickly sussed their prodigy son’s talent. Others did not, if only because they thought he couldn’t get far on the leg braces that polio forced on him at age 4 — never mind that the violin is not customarily played with one’s feet. Nonetheless, at 13 he was both enrolled at Juilliard and making his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (duly reprised here).
We get just glimpses of his meteoric subsequent rise in archival performance and interview clips. Instead, Chernick’s main focus is on the subject’s everyday life as he enters his eighth decade — even if this particular “everyday life” might entail eating Chinese takeout with other living classical-music legends, accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, jetting to Jerusalem (for another prize), backing up Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden or playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open a Mets game. Admittedly, there are also less exalted moments, when we see him rehearsing with an orchestra or in the recording studio, teaching music students (at Juilliard and the Perlman Program summer camp) and negotiating wintertime NYC sidewalks in his wheelchair-scooter.
Perlman is a garrulous personality who seems comfortable in almost any setting. Yet he appears to take a conversational back seat around wife Toby, who’s also a violinist (though “not a particularly exciting one” by comparison, she admits) and a perfect soul mate in seemingly every additional respect. Their busy, curious, affectionately meddling dynamic sets the general tone here, making much of “Itzhak” play like an invitation to spend the weekend with a family of acquaintances who just happen to include one international celebrity (plus their occasional celebrity pals, like dinner guest Alda). It’s intimate enough that we grasp how important Jewish identity, culture and ritual is in their lives, and casual enough that such matters never require formal “talking head” explanation. There’s also time to dwell on the fascinations of the violin as physical object, whether visiting an instrument dealer in Tel Aviv or having Perlman’s favored Stradivarius looked over by a repairer before a tour.
The strains of Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Strauss, et al., weave through the film, albeit in a fashion more incidental than focused — this is not the kind of documentary in which Perlman would be drilled about his approaches or attitudes toward individual composers. Instead, it’s the kind where he might reasonably enough be last seen playing with nontraditional klezmer band the Klezmatics, a circumstance for which by then no explanation is required.
Chernick has primarily dealt with visual artists (Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney, Steve McQueen) in her documentaries but seems quite at home exploring this different creative milieu. Helen Yum’s editing weaves a seemingly free-form progress into a briskly entertaining package, while the several cinematographers credited lean toward warm earth tones reminiscent of certain Woody Allen movies, or the fine wood grain of a violin itself.