First look Amazon Prime TV review: Mozart in the Jungle
Gael Garcia Bernal8
James R | On 23, Dec 2014
Gael Garcia Bernal plays a sexy conductor in Amazon’s new original TV series, Mozart in the Jungle. If that sentence doesn’t make the show stand out from the crowd, the subject matter certainly will: the backstage life of the New York Symphony Orchestra.
It’s hard to remember the last time classical music was treated seriously by a TV series or film – not since 2012’s A Late Quartet has it been given such a prominent starring role – so it’s a treat to hear violins, cellos and French horns going at it every episode. Hoping to join them is oboist Hailey (a charming Lola Kirke), who catches the eye of Rodrigo (Bernal), the new conductor of the ensemble.
He’s replacing the old-school maestro Thomas (a pleasingly bitter Malcolm McDowell), who is appalled by Rodrigo’s new ideas to make classical cool – such as getting everyone to perform a concert with the lights turned off. Chairwoman Gloria (Bernadette Peters), though, is instantly smitten, much to Thomas’ annoyance. While that rivalry plays out, we follow Hailey’s attempts to make sense of life, love, sex and scales.
If that sounds like a muddled plot, that’s because it is: based on the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs & Classical Music by Blair Tindall, the series (penned by Wes Anderson regulars Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman plus Alex Timbers) darts back and forth between its sections with an almost improvised air. One minute Hayley’s faced with the prospect of doing Mahler’s 8th on stage, the next we’re watching arguments about the importance of toilet breaks in rehearsals.
But the joy of the show comes from seeing all these bits play off against each other. Whether it’s McDowell having an affair with veteran cellist Cynthia (a delightfully sassy Saffron Burrows), or Hayley’s flatmate Lizzie (an enjoyably over-the-top Hannah Dunne) instigating instrument-playing drink-offs at house parties, the background world of New York’s music scene feels genuine – right down to Hayley’s nightly stints accompanying a hilariously bad Oedipus Rex musical on Broadway.
The musicians themselves drift towards stereotypes – the needy assistant, who wipes poo off Rodrigo’s shoe without question, the drummer, who deals drugs from the back row between rehearsals – but the satirically snooty cultured types are played with such gusto that you forgive the occasionally shallow script. “I used to have breasts,” snaps one catty senior musician at our young heroine, “but I didn’t play my oboe with them.” Even Hailey’s bland love interest, upcoming dancer Alex (Peter Vack), sells their relationship with a smile.
For a comedy drama, Mozart in the Jungle doesn’t have many gripping story-lines to keep you hooked, nor laugh-out-loud gags, but there are giggles in the tiny details; the dreadful ideas from the orchestra’s PR department (“Hear the Hair”) are wonderfully observed, while the writers’ Wes Anderson-like whimsy even finds time to insert a horse in the middle of a scene.
Front and centre, though, is Bernal, who steals the spotlight with a firecracker of a performance. He runs around like a madman, seducing women and getting “swept up” in the music with irresistible enthusiasm. Pausing a conversation to listen to the sound of a taxi driving across a bridge could be laughable in another actor’s hands, but Bernal somehow makes it believable. One scene where he forces everyone to mime their parts is a treat, while the way he constantly calls Hailey “Jai alai” never fails to raise a grin.
The result, then, is less a thunderous masterpiece and more a likeable ditty – but one given added sparkle by its subject. The miming of musicians playing may be dreadful at times, but they sound good; the chance to hear Lelie Resnick (principal of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) strut her oboe stuff is something unique in small screen entertainment.
As the amiable stream of episodes slowly crescendoes, you find yourself enchanted by an impromptu rehearsal in a disused parking lot, or – in the standout Episode 7, directed by Roman Coppola with long, flowing takes – amused by the silliness of a posh fund-raiser, complete with a gloriously tipsy Peters.
Throughout, the cameras capture the commitment it takes to play at the very top level; one memorable montage in Episode 2 swings back and forth through the same shot every time Hailey repeats a rehearsed phrase. If we never quite get the answer to which is more important, life or sacrificing it for music, or hit on a documentary-like presentation of an orchestra’s behind-the-scenes goings-on, that’s no huge problem; it’s just a pleasure to see these performers blend together into such an organic group.
Mozart in the Jungle may not amount to more than the sum of its parts, but those individual parts are a lot of fun – and they are held together by a brilliantly daft bit of baton-waving. Unlike Amazon’s previous original series, Transparent, Mozart is no contender for the best TV series of the year, but this is light entertainment in easy-listening 30-minute chunks. It had us at “Gael Garcia Bernal plays a sexy conductor”.
Mozart in the Jungle is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would like unlimited free next day delivery in the UK, as part of an annual £79 Amazon Prime membership (with a 30-day free trial).