Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy show based on Blair Tindall’s memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music. The show itself does not have a lot of explicit sex nor mind-numbing drugs, but it has superfluous classical music to make something elitist accessible to the uncouth masses.
In the center of Mozart in the Jungle is the eccentric yet adorable musical genius, conductor Rodrigo de Souza (Gael García Bernal). Rodrigo is so legendary in the musical world that, like Cher and Madonna, he “only needs to be introduced by his first name”. With the help of Chairman of the Board Gloria Windsor (Bernadette Peters), Rodrigo replaces ageing conductor and musical director and soon-to-be executive musical director emeritus Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) of New York Symphony. Rodrigo is hired to pump new blood into the Symphony, usher in youthful music and appease the ladies who lunch, a great part of the generous donors of the Symphony.
Rodrigo is flamboyant in and out of the stage, he has long and curly mane so luxurious that it can star in shampoo commercials, wears wildly colorful outfits and shares the stage with a parrot. Also, he turns his baton into long-stemmed roses, holds impromptu auditions and takes the whole orchestra outdoors to perform in front of the uncouth masses. Despite his unpredictability, he swallows his pride to attend fundraisers and woo disenfranchised patrons (who continue to support Pembridge) and reassure loyal ones of the future of the Symphony.
With narration from the point of view struggling oboist, Symphony-reject-turned-Rodrigo’s-assistant, Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), audience discover the unsavory part of classical music. While Rodrigo rub elbows with members of the upper echelon, members of his orchestra are not as fortunate. They take on odd jobs to pay the rent: Hailey gives music lessons to a rich boy with raging hormones, cellist Cynthia Taylor (Saffron Burrows) who could have been a fashion model with her height and cheekbones, moonlights in a cheesy musical, drummer Dee Dee (John Miller) sells drugs on the side to ease the pain and stress of his colleagues, and first-chair oboist Betty Cragdale (Debra Monk) gives lessons to aspiring oboists. As a group, they give record film soundtracks to augment their meager income.
Once, when they perform at one of the fundraisers, in their black formals and tuxes with their instruments in tow, they are instructed to take the service entrance, just like the waiters and food caterers do. They are prohibited to eat or drink anything else aside from the handful of hors d’oeuvre provided. These show the great chasm between the lives of the patrons and the artists, yet the artists persist for the love of their craft.
While Rodrigo struggles to put his stamp on the Symphony, his estranged wife, the lovely yet volatile Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder) returns to New York and haunts his thoughts 24/7. Anna Maria plays the violin as easily as she breathes in oxygen, but she abhors the constraints and formality of the orchestra and calls the patrons “bourgeois pigs”. Her performances involve smashed violins (think of Marat Safin and tennis rackets), guns and biohazards, yet Rodrigo deems it suitable to invite her as the soloist on his opening night. And the opening night is the finale of the show.
Bernal is endearing as Rodrigo, inclusive of the fact that he butchers Hailey’s name every time he says it. That alone is worth watching because it keeps one guessing how he will pronounce “Hailey” next time. Bernal has magnetic screen presence that makes Rodrigo’s exuberance bigger-than-life yet simultaneously believable. And his boyish smiles remind me of the first time I saw him on Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother, Too) at one of the SM Cinemas (when SM used to show R-rated foreign films) in Megamall, and I thought that he was the most beautiful man on earth. Aside from Rodrigo, Peters’ Gloria is a hoot. It is fun watching her teeter on the brink of multiple nervous breakdowns throughout the season, most of them caused by Rodrigo’s experiments.
The weakest link in Mozart in the Jungle is Kirke’s Hailey. She seems out of place, not just in the orchestra, but also in the show. She does not have the same pull as the other actors given that Hailey has the most screen time. Despite Hailey and Rodrigo’s time together, their characters do not produce any kind of romantic spark. They lack chemistry, which makes their kiss in the finale a little forced. Maybe in the second season of Mozart in the Jungle, Hailey needs to prepare Rodrigo’s maté less frequently to give her time to truly bond with him.
To paraphrase Rodrigo in the finale, Mozart in the Jungle is not the greatest show on tv but is not third-rate either. The show is capable of doing amazing things, but it is not there yet. In the meantime, it asks the audience to bear with it. What Rodrigo asks is not a hard task because Mozart in the Jungle is funny, unpredictable, with tender moments in the midst of insanity generally associated with musicians, but at the end of the day, it is about classical music. And at the very least, one can watch Gael García Bernal and listen to his wildly sexy English.
This is a review of Mozart in the Jungle Season 1.
To read the review for Season 2, please proceed here.