Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lost in Music: Mozart in the Jungle

Gael Garcia Berna in Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle.

In most American popular culture, the stereotype of the arrogant, pompous classical-music conductor and his stuffed-shirt audience hasn’t changed much since the Marx Brothers’ day. In the Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle, Gael Garcia Bernal gets the chance to embody the contemporary, highly promotable image of the celebrity conductor in the age of Gustavo Dudamel as a young, swivel-hipped sex symbol with an ingenuous manner and the mane of a lion. Garcia Bernal plays Rodrigo De Souza, who, in a blaze of fund-raising hype, is brought in to take charge of the New York Philharmonic. (He’s greeted with a garish nightmare of a promotional campaign built around the slogan “Hear the Hair!”)

Mozart in the Jungle, which was developed by Roman Coppola, Alex Timbers, and Jason Schwartzman (who has an ingratiating cameo as a music podcaster) is an ensemble piece, but the charm of the series is tied to Garcia Bernal’s character: it’s captivating for Garcia Bernal’s magnetic star performance, but it’s likable partly for all the things Rodrigo isn’t. He’s not a cocky flamethrower out to rewrite the rule book, like the lusty cartoon versions of great composers in Ken Russell’s florid mock biopics. He’s not an innocent naïf or a fish out of water, either. He doesn’t have any grand plans except to make great music with his new orchestra, and though he doesn’t yet know the specifics of how this is going to happen, he has faith that the music itself will see him through. Rodrigo annoys his boss (Bernadette Peters) by pulling such stunts as arriving scandalously late for a fund-raising event, but once he’s there, he goes to work at charming the ladies with the skilled mastery of a young man from the sticks who’s always depended on the kindness of patrons, and who is proud of being good at this aspect of his job. 

When he lets his contempt for a smarmy sponsor show, it may be that he knows that this, like the late arrival, delights his real fans, who like their great artists to also be bad boys. But he’s horrified when the retiring maestro (Malcolm McDowell) loses his cool and expresses contempt for him; they’re supposed to be brothers united in their love of music, and Rodrigo, who is too young and hot to understand that the maestro might have mixed feelings about being at the end of a successful career instead of still on the launching pad, begs to know how he’s given offense to the older lion. (As in Robert Altman’s The Company, where he had one of his best recent roles as a celebrated ballet choreographer, McDowell is clearly amused to find himself representing high culture’s old order, more than forty years after Lindsay Anderson and Stanley Kubrick cast him as the spirit of youthful rebellion incarnate.)

Lola Kirke and Saffron Burrows in Mozart in the Jungle

Along with Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle suggests the ways that Amazon is managing to set itself apart in its original series. Neither show is especially adventurous formally, but the company is taking a chance on characters and designs for living that more conventionally broadcasters would shy away from. In its own way, Mozart is almost as fearless in its unapologetic celebration of the love of classical music as Transparent is in its comic but un-mocking view of transgender issues. It, too, believes in a family of music lovers and music makers, and it’s all-welcoming: even the established oboe player (Debra Monk), an unapologetic bitch who snubs the lovely young heroine (Lola Kirke) after she’s given the chance to try out for the orchestra and chokes, is redeemed when the heroine gets the chance to fill in for her; instead of bawling her out, Monk tells her that she heard just enough of her playing to tell her that, surprisingly, she’s okay.

If anything, the first (ten-episode) season of Mozart could stand to have a little more acid in its veins. Saffron Burrows plays a member of the Philharmonic who is flirting with a prescription-pill addiction; the worst that happens as a result of this is that she gets flirtatiously loopy and grants a one-night stand to an older colleague (Mark Blum), who is both very grateful and perfectly understanding when told that it can’t happen again. But for now, the show makes up in charm what it practically goes out of its way to avoid in dramatic conflict. Young and old alike, the musicians are all struggling to makes ends meet, doing odd jobs like scoring a trashy exploitation movie, while gossiping and bitching about arguing about union benefits, but they’re also falling in and out of bed with each other and doing what they love in what, at least based on the physical evidence here, is still the greatest, most romantic city in the world. If Mozart in the Jungle has trouble finding a downside to that situation, who can argue?

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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