If director Alison Chernick really wanted to be bold, she could have just set up a camera in front of renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, let him play for 90 minutes and called it good. Perlman's music is so passionate and engaging that no one would have complained.
In that sense, Chernick's "Itzhak" feels like a wealth of blessings, exploring the musician's fascinating roots and leading us to his selfless contemporary musical and humanitarian efforts over the course of an 82-minute documentary.
We meet Perlman in a context that perfectly embodies his classical talent and down-to-earth approachability: playing the "Star-Spangled Banner" before a New York Mets game. He's accompanied by his wife Toby, both here and throughout the film, and "Itzhak" frequently traces the simple tale of their successful marriage.
Of course, Perlman also has a pretty serious relationship with his music. "Itzhak's" narrative arc is simple, mostly following the violinist and his wife as they interact with family, friends and other musicians, periodically commenting on the events and highlights of the last 60 years.
We see Perlman as a 13-year-old boy on "The Ed Sullivan Show," newly arrived in New York from his childhood growing up in Israel, where a bout with polio compromised the use of his legs. Even as a teenager his abilities are amazing to watch, and from there, Perlman attends the Juilliard School as the next step in his illustrious career.
Highlights from that career flash across the screen in still photographs and archival footage that show him working with composer John Williams, legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti and even socializing with Frank Sinatra. He interacts with presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (while accepting the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom), and in one segment, he works out an amusing intro to "We Didn't Start the Fire" prior to a special performance at Madison Square Garden with Billy Joel.
Through all of these episodes, Perlman's mastery of his instrument is underscored with various samples of his music, and for ambitious audiophiles, Chernick includes the name of each track at the top of the screen as the violinist plays.
"Itzhak" really finds its stride as the documentary ventures beyond a simple profile of the artist to having him comment on the nature and design of violins, the history of his Jewish people and the way that becoming a teacher has enriched his life. "When you teach others," says Perlman, "you teach yourself."
Chernick's approach is very light, avoiding voiceover narration and an excess of interviews to allow the artist and his music to do most of the talking. In one late segment, as Perlman discusses the significance of the violin to the Jewish culture, his performance of a piece from "Schindler's List" is paired with the astute observation of an associate, who suggests that Perlman prays through his violin.
Even for viewers who aren't particularly religious, the soul of Perlman's music will make the documentary a spiritually uplifting experience.
"Itzhak" is not rated, but should easily land in G or PG territory; running time: 82 minutes.