Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Amazon streaming: MOZART IN THE JUNGLE -- a loose, lovable and very smart little series

For several years now Netflix has been hailed as the new "content provider" that -- in addition to offering its usual DVD and Blu-ray discs for rental, as well as tons of movies and TV series to stream -- is creating its own first-rate series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the recent and brilliant Daredevil. Lately, however, Amazon,  the behemoth we all love to hate, is making its own inroads into original content, with the award-winning Transparent and a bunch of other new, how-did-these-get-here-so-fast? series, among which MOZART IN THE JUNGLE is most definitely worth your time. (A recent issue of New York magazine profiled Amazon's sudden explosion into original series with an excellent article you might want to read -- if you haven't already.)

Having found Transparent a wonderfully rich example of original, unusual dramedy, TrustMovies moved on recently to this newer series and was very quickly hooked. Mozart in the Jungle seems to me an almost perfect example of what Amazon Studios (the "content" arm of the behemoth) seems intent on providing: original content that, while nowhere near close to blockbuster/ mainstream level, will give a certain smaller segment of sophisticated television viewers exactly the kind of thing for which they're always searching.

Mozart... offers up a smart plot situated in a venue that neither TV, movies nor practically any source from which we get our "drama" has cared to go -- that of the big-city symphony orchestra: that "jungle" of the title. The brain-child of a most creative threesome: Roman Coppola, (above, left), Jason Schwartzman (above, right) and Alex Timbers (shown at right) (based on the book by Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music), the series should be a shoo-in for anyone who's ever been involved in the classical music scene.

Yours truly worked at New York City's Philharmonic Hall -- now Avery Fisher Hall -- for several years back in the 1960s. But even if you have never been involved with symphonies and the like, the series is well-executed enough to pull you in. Watching it made me realize, among many other things, that despite how much has changed in the intervening decades, much remains the same.

Prime amongst those things that never seem to change is the necessity of fundraising -- above almost everything else. Wait: forget "almost." Fundraising is all. The person responsible for this on Mozart... is Gloria Windsor, played by Broadway veteran Bernadette Peters (above, left), who -- as do literally all the actors on the show -- turns her character into a multifaceted surprise and delight.

Mozart's creators understand quite well how conducting, performing in and running a symphony orchestra is full of compromise, no matter how dedicated to "art" are the people involved. These would include especially the symphony's new conductor, Rodrigo, a role just about perfect for the charismatic Mexican actor Gabriel García Bernal, who here gives maybe his best performance yet, as the bizarre-but-fully-dedicated enfant terrible who wants to take this orchestra to a new plateau.

Rodrigo's relationship to the conductor he is replacing (a marvelous turn by Malcolm McDowell, above) is a complicated one, and as the series progresses, this becomes more focused, specific, funny and moving.

The orchestra itself is composed of a raft of smart and talented actors -- from Mark Blum and Deborah Monk to Saffron Burrows (at right) as the crack violist and Lola Kirke (below) as a young oboist hoping to break into the ranks of the anointed. How the latter achieves this -- and then doesn't -- provides some of the surprise and believa-bility, coupled to the kind of charm and entertainment that makes for the series' great success. As befits a show brought to life by the likes of Mr. Schwartzman, Mozart... is above all loose and lively, never underscor-ing its points nor pushing too hard.

Mozart in the Jungle treats its characters -- virtually all of them -- as living, breathing, complicated human beings, whose needs and desires often conflict with those of their nearest and dearest -- not to mention with what they themselves sometimes want.

The series also addresses class and economics, and while it comes down firmly on the side of the underdogs and "art" over the wealthy and corporate, it never handles this in the usual obvious and stupidly facile fashon. Mozart's creators understand the complications of living in the real world and what this means to the idea of creation and compromise.

Victory, as is only sometimes (and not often enough) the case, goes to those who can best roll with the punches -- a scenario beautifully demonstrated by the final episode in this first season.

The show is also unafraid to introduce an oddball new character for a one-time appearance -- Wallace Shawn (above) is one example -- or offer up a memorable supporting turn from another who appears only now and again, such as the beautiful and charismatic Nora Arnezeder (below: remember Paris 36?).

Shows like Mozart... don't set the world afire. That's not their job. Rather they appeal to to those of us who want something different but of high quality in both its artistic ambitions and entertainment quotient. This series delivers on both levels. It's streamable now, only via Amazon, where Prime members can watch it free.

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