Music and film promote each other in the annual Reel Music Festival

The Northwest Film Center screened the documentary Seymour: An Introduction on Saturday, January 23, as part of their 33rd annual Reel Music Festival, which showcases many films about musicians, musical movements, and performance-based documentaries.

Directed by actor Ethan Hawke, Seymour chronicles the career of Seymour Bernstein, a successful New York City pianist who abandoned concert performing in order to teach piano students. Hawke frames the film as a quest to answer a larger question: Why make art?

“What is it that I’m living for?” Hawke asks.

The film follows Bernstein, whom Hawke met at a mutual friend’s dinner party, during his one-on-one lessons with students, teaching a master class, talking with former students and generally philosophizing about the meaning of art and creativity. He frequently draws comparisons between his relationship with music and life.

“The struggle is what makes the art form,” Bernstein said. “That’s how life is.”

His musings touch on a wide range of subjects: from the craft and discipline of being an artist (refuting the notion that one need only be talented), to the importance of nurturing a feminine sensibility and willingness to be vulnerable, to the eccentricity and neurosis that often accompanies genius.

He even touches on religion, spirituality and metaphysics. Bernstein describes music as an aural manifestation of universal order and as a language through which we become one with the stars.

When the lights came up in the theater, sniffles could be heard around the room from viewers who were clearly touched by the piece.

One audience member, Nancy Brown, was especially moved; she has been a piano teacher for 40 years.

“The film was fantastic. It was very very moving. I missed it the first time it came around and I’m so glad I got to see it. I’m a piano teacher so it’s really special,” Brown said.

Fortunately, this is just one of many films still yet to be screened during the on-going festival.

Nick Bruno is the publicity and promotions manager for the NW Film Center, and he’s excited about some new films that don’t neatly fit into the usual categories.

For example, The Glamour & The Squalor is about Seattle-based DJ Marco Collins who, as the lead programmer at Seattle’s radio station 107.7 “The End,” brought grunge and alternative music to the forefront of the musical discussion in the 1990s.

And as Portlanders settle in for a couple more months of winter and lack of access to the outdoors, the festival is a popular indoor activity. Bruno says they once moved it to October a few years ago and noticed a dip in audience sizes.

“So far, the audience reaction has been really positive with a noticeable increase in attendance,” Bruno said.

The NW Film Center has an education-based mission, which includes filmmaking classes year-round, and extends to their exhibition program.

“All of the Northwest Film Center’s programs are curated with our mission in mind. We’re here to encourage visual literacy and appreciation of the moving image arts,” Bruno said.

Director Bill Foster spends all year culling through films for Reel Music.

“He keeps an eye out for works that avoid being just surface level treatments for the fans of a particular musical artist,” Bruno said. “The emphasis is always on how the music and the medium of film elevate each other.”

The biggest hit so far has been The Amazing Nina Simone. But Bill Evans’ Time Remembered and Roxy: The Movie drew full crowds too.

Micah Vanderhoof, theater manager for the NW Film Center, said he has been pleased with the festival’s success so far.

“It’s going pretty great. We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that’s still coming up,” Vanderhoof said.

Vanderhoof predicts that Everybody’s Cage, about the 20th century avant-garde composer John Cage, and Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, about the Different Strokes soul singer, will be especially popular.

The festival continues through Feb. 5. The full lineup can be found at