A Wanker’s Literary Reaction: Mozart in the Jungle
The year: 2000. A twenty-year-old Mexican actor by the name of Gael Garcia Bernal explodes onto the scene with a harrowing performance in dark thriller Amores Perros, playing a beaten-down teenager (above) who turns to dogfighting in order to prove to his uninterested crush that he can take care of her before getting involved in a horrifying, life-altering car crash.
2004. Bernal cements his burgeoning career with two important but wildly different turns. One as a con-artist transvestite dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse in the church in Almodovar’s controversial Bad Education, the other as a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara travelling across Latin America where the seeds of his future communism are sowed.
Jump to 2012. After a series of critically-acclaimed turns in films like Babel and The King, Bernal appears in award-winning Chilean drama No, which charts his character’s grappling with political manoeuvring in Pinochet-era Chile.
Skip to 2014, and Bernal is starring in…a light American dramedy in which he plays an off-the-wall classical conductor with a passion for the silly? Yup, it’s time to talk about Mozart in the Jungle, an often baffling but occasionally entertaining venture into the world of classical music in New York.
If I haven’t made it clear enough above, one of the things that attracted me to this series was how fucking bizarre it was for Bernal to be playing such a light role. He’s an astoundingly good actor who usually sticks to the kind of roles that win him awards whether he wants them or not: brave, stark, dramatic, and intelligent roles that prove over and over again how incredible a serious actor he is. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any of his films (at least those that have gained traction across the pond) in which he’s played a consistently fun role. I spent the first half of the series waiting for him to snap and start making his orchestra fight each other for cash, but was instead met by a charming, extremely funny guy who just wanted to conduct some classical music and annotate some manuscripts, yo. Rodriguo de Souza is a childish, witty, clever, passionate character who’s brought in to breathe new life into the New York Symphony Orchestra, and the kind of person who you’d consider changing religion for (did you see those pictures I put up there? I mean, are you made of stone?).
Right, here’s the thing about this flagship Amazon original series: it’s Smash, but with classical music. Smash promised a cheeky, sordid look behind the scenes of Broadway theatre and failed to deliver: Mozart in the Jungle succeeds on all the levels Smash couldn’t. It even gives Bernadette Peters, who’s got roles in both series, a much better part to play, for Chrissake. It demolishes and embarrasses Smash by showing them just how easy and brilliant this kind of show could be. It’s packed with engaging characters, but what makes them even better is their ability to interact with each other like adults instead of the preening, shrieking, stomping ninny-children we’ve come to expect from dramedy shows. Lola Kirke’s (who I also spotted in Gone Girl, which is excellent and in which she is excellent) self-deprecating, sarcastic, up-and-coming oboist doesn’t need to have screaming matches over mantelpieces with her love interest in order to sort out their problems; they just go for a shag and a chat. Saffron Burrows as the louche, charming cellist of your dreams gets high and screws someone she regrets; they discuss it and agree not to mention it to anyone for fear of making the orchestra an awkward place to work. Instead of being constantly pitted against each other, the women are smart, ambitious, and know when to work with or against each other. Everyone deals with things in a grown-up way, which makes the drama, when it does arrive, all the more engaging and juicy, because you know it must be serious. The curtain-twitching community of the orchestra is filled out with snapshots of characters that let us fill in the blanks, but the effectiveness of giving the background cast faces cannot be overstated.
Beyond that, the series is just a metric shit-ton of compressed all-over-the-place-ness held together by a sense of game fun. One minute Malcolm Macdowell (who’s place in this series is possibly more inexplicable than Bernal’s) is drinking coconut water and wearing a Hawaiin shirt; the next Bernal’s manic violinist ex-lover is screaming at an audience to “SHUT UP!” as they try to applaud her. Jason Schwartzman in a leather gilet turns up. Roman Coppola directs. Hannah Dunne smokes dope and tattoos people. Everyone seems overqualified for this series, and it’s wild.
But it all boils down to one thing: the music. As the kind of person who was determined to learn how to play instruments but never had a natural aptitude for them (twenty combined years of bass, cello, and piano have proved that the most I can do is smugly shout “YOU’RE NOT PLAYING THAT RIGHT” at the screen occasionally), I love hearing classical music. Take a superb scene in which the orchestra plays the 1812 Overture (amusing aside: a member of my family was pulled over by the police in their car, and had an argument with them in which the police wouldn’t believe that they had this track on CD in the player. They did. Not sure how the cops took that) in a broken-into lot in New York City; packed with bravado and the utter passion that stems from brilliant classical music, the show draws it’s energy from the variety and novelty of it’s setlist. Entrenching the series so deeply in such a specific type of music was an audacious choice, but one that works entirely to give every episode a running theme and thread. It makes no odds if you like classical music or not (and if you don’t, listen to this and come back to me), because Mozart in the Jungle isn’t here to patronise; it’s not even here to educate. It’s here to fucking entertain. And by God, it does.