This is a sweetly reverential documentary about the world-famous violinist. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

Although it includes archival footage of a 13-year-old Israeli-born Itzhak Perlman playing the violin on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” most of Alison Chernick’s sweetly reverential new documentary, “Itzhak,” suggests a contemporary day in the life of a world-famous musician.

Alan Alda drops by, and he and Perlman compare notes on how their childhood treatments for polio differed. (Alda did well by the “Sister Kenny” method, involving painful hot towels wrapped around his limbs, while Perlman’s treatment drew more on folk medicine, including a smoke-inhalation regimen.) Toby, Itzhak’s wife of 50 years, keeps the conversation moving along, with a brief lecture or two, both in onstage interviews and at the couple’s home. Other visitors drift by, as the subject matter turns from the perils of music education to the fear of “showing off” in concert.

“We shot for a year and a half,” says Chernick, who made “The Artist is Absent” and “Matthew Barney: No Restraint.” She spent another year editing the footage, trying to avoid the clichés of “talking heads” documentaries by capturing intimate moments that define and complicate the characters. Those “moments” turned out to take place during Itzhak’s 70th year.

That 1958 Sullivan-show appearance was the violinist’s breakthrough, though he doubts he got the gig “purely because of the way I played.”

“It was a ‘poor little crippled boy’ kind of thing,” his wife says frankly. “But anybody who heard that, any musician who heard that, knew that it didn’t have anything to do with ‘crippled.’ ”

“There was no question about that talent,” his Juilliard teacher Dorothy DeLay says in a lovely 1993 interview. “The question in some people’s minds was that he walked with crutches.”

To some, that seemed to rule out a career as a concert violinist.

“They called it wrong,” DeLay says, “and I knew at the time that they were calling it wrong. I tried to find as many ways as possible to make him independent. And he became very independent.”

Music hangs in the air throughout the film. Perlman says his most frequently requested piece is John Williams’ theme for Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama, “Schindler’s List.” Generous excerpts from numerous other works (helpfully identified on-screen) are also featured in the film. There’s even a collaboration with Billy Joel and an extravagantly fancy version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

A charismatic New York Jew with strong family ties to Europe and Israel, Perlman grew up deeply conscious of the 20th century’s worst calamities. But he steers clear of politics himself.

When asked if he’s excited about meeting Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, he says, “Meeting every head of state is exciting in a way. … We don’t have to talk about politics. We can talk about food. We can talk about music.”

Clearly, for him, it’s the music that counts.


★★★ “Itzhak,” a documentary written and directed by Alison Chernick. 83 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Opens April 6 at the Meridian.