I’ve loved Gael García Bernal ever since Y Tu Mamá También and regrettably didn’t know about Amazon Prime’s “Mozart in the Jungle” until recently. Amazon Prime released the 10-episode dramedy in the latter part of 2014 with seemingly little publicity and far less fanfare than the online retailer’s breakout hit “Transparent”. It certainly flew under my radar until Bernal’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a comedy TV series. “Mozart” offers us viewers a rare glimpse behind the curtain into the New York Symphony Orchestra and the world in which the classical musicians inhabit.
It’s a world that’s primarily interesting because we haven’t seen it much before on television, or through any on-screen depictions frankly where orchestral members often blend into the background like sonic wallpaper. Adapted from Blair Tindall’s memoir from which the television series lends its name, “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music”, “Mozart” dives head first into the inner conflicts of the people that compose the symphony orchestra. The new eccentric unconventional maestro, Rodrigo (Bernal), has recently ousted the former cantankerous, traditional maestro Thomas played by Malcolm McDowell (well-known for playing Sloan’s father Terrance on HBO’s bro series ‘Entourage’). The shake-up has rankled some members of the orchestra and its big money donors, and subsequently has the president of the symphony Gloria (played by a magnificent Bernadette Peters) scurrying to and fro from upper crust fundraisers to the music hall in order to put out all the fires caused by Rodrigo as he continues through his idiosyncrasies preparing for the first big season-opening performance.
The first few episodes are guided by the young oboist ingénue from North Carolina (with mention of Raleigh!), Hailey (played by Lola Kirke, ‘Girls’ star Jemima Kirke’s real-life sister) as she tries to make it as a professional musician trying to navigate life in New York City with a quirky roommate and a love interest in a Julliard-trained dancer named Alex. The series slowly transitions to focus more on Rodrigo, with Hailey as his trusty assistant, as he must pacify Gloria’s expectations of him as the newly-installed maestro that will reinvigorate the symphony and rescue it from its perilous financial status.
The tropes in “Mozart” are nothing new: old versus new, traditional versus modern, unsanctioned romances and struggling artists in the big, bad and expensive city. Bolstered by strong performances of the main characters from Bernal, McDowell, Kirke, Peters, and the “courtesan” cellist Cynthia played by Saffron Burrows, ‘Mozart’ derives its strength from the nuances in its depiction of the day-to-day lives of the classical musicians and how they earn their gig money, and from dealing with foibles like nagging wrist pains and jealousies over talent and rank in power.
At times, the plot becomes predictable and almost ambles along, only to take puzzling twists into the supernatural and weird. Rodrigo in the beginning comes off more as a caricature with his wacky mop of hair and love a perfectly-brewed up of maté tea than a fully-formed character, but is largely rescued by Bernal’s charismatic performance. His tenuous and tortured relationship with his estranged (?) performance artist wife Anna Maria is especially puzzling in several episodes. And, some of the side orchestra characters’ plotlines seem to zig and zag all over the place without any rhyme or reason and can leave viewers with an unsatisfied feeling. Some of the members of the orchestra are sketched out enough to warm me to the idea of them in one episode and then are forgotten and not addressed over the course of the next. The writing is definitely choppy and unwieldy at times and is paired with uneven execution in direction over the course of the 1o-episode series which is not entirely expected out of a series in its first season. Many moments sort of languish in spots and in turn results in tedium and boredom for the viewer, perhaps underscoring that there’s a limit to how much drama from a series about a symphony orchestra can deliver. The series hits high notes when the orchestra does come mellifluously to play together in scenes and, one scene in Episode 6, ‘The Rehearsal’ is particurarly rewarding as a viewer that is usually only privy to the orchestral practices but not the performances.
Though the series has its kinks to work out, ‘Mozart’ contains just enough plot and character development to watch the next episode, which makes the streaming delivery system all that the more attractive to a viewer that may feel lukewarm about the show. The season ends with the opening night and picks up in the season two when Amazon Prime drops the next batch of episodes on December 30.