Leonard Bernstein’s closeted sexuality provides a vaguely salacious hook for “Bernstein’s Wall,” a documentary about his life and achievements that devotes time to his liaisons with men before and during his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre.
But with newly discovered archival footage, much of which Bernstein narrates himself, documentarian Douglas Tirola (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead”) creates an engaging overview of an artist and activist that throws down a considerable dramatic gauntlet — perhaps, more than anything, for the biopic of the composer and conductor that Bradley Cooper is currently cowriting, directing, producing and starring in for Netflix.
Its feverishly edited volume of concert footage and first-person interviews occasionally delivers a slightly dizzying chronology of Bernstein’s life and times, but Tirola does an exceptional job of showcasing the irrefutable truth that he contained a few more multitudes than most.
Starting with Bernstein’s Boston upbringing as the son of a tyrannical father who grew up in a Russian ghetto, Tirola lets the maestro offer a life story in his own terms featuring archival interviews and extensive first-person interview footage. Erudite without being nerdy or pretentious, Bernstein explains how his prodigious musical talent evolved into the role he eventually assumed as one of the most recognizable conductors of the 20th Century, if not of all time.
Becoming an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic at 25, success and fame came to him quickly, despite his resistance to Anglicize his last name; meanwhile, relationships with college professors and, later, mentors like Aaron Copland provided him with a socially acceptable outlet for homosexual instincts he could only communicate privately via personal correspondence.
The film breezes by Bernstein’s blacklisting by Joe McCarthy far too quickly and fails almost entirely to indicate what consequences if any he faced as a result of it. Similarly, it uses Bernstein’s own words so frequently that it allows him to elide the treatment (and mistreatment) of his wife Felicia, whom there’s no doubt he loved, although — based on brief anecdotal comments by both her and his sister — he could be alternately cold and even cruel. (Felicia’s eventual confrontation of Leonard in their letters to one another feels almost like a relief after more than an hour of artfully emphasized transcripts and photographs with him holding hands with other men.)
But the more tabloid-worthy aspects of his life, including being pinpointed by Nixon and his advisors (again, to no significant impact other than his social standing, according to the film) after Bernstein became an antiwar activist during Vietnam, are eventually backgrounded to focus on the role he served, for a generation or two anyway, in helping the world understand music in a more sophisticated way.
As he explains, listening to Bernstein at the lectern — in any capacity — was a bit of a radical act; where other conductors let the music do the talking, he engaged concert attendees directly to explore composition, performance, artistic and cultural inspiration, and more. Additionally, he insisted that his long series of concerts for children be broadcast on television, which amplified this education to a much bigger audience during some of the earliest days of the medium.
It will be interesting to see if the documentary inspires a reappraisal of his value system, as many of his monologues not only highlight but also celebrate the melting pot of artistic cultures and how composers begged, borrowed and even stole from one another while creating some of the most enduring works in classical music history. Tirola, for his part, leaves that provocative question unanswered alongside the controversy Bernstein attracted in 1970 after hosting a gathering for the Black Panthers written about in withering detail by Tom Wolfe, inspiring the popularization of the term “radical chic.”
One hundred minutes is almost certainly too few to create a complete portrait of, well, anyone, but even with reels and reels of archival material, Tirola’s film doesn’t have enough time to slow down and explore many highlights (much less the ideas or subtext within them) that one imagines could make a pretty good movie all by themselves. Moreover, whether by design or necessity, he uses elliptical montages of footage of Bernstein conducting, paired with singular anecdotes or recollections, that visually run his ages together; Bernstein was just 30 or so when McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee put him in their crosshairs, but the corresponding filmmaking juxtaposes photos from that moment with video recordings of him conducting when he was much older.
One imagines that Cooper’s film won’t try to paint quite as broad a portrait of Bernstein’s life as this documentary, but as an overview, Tirola’s portrait offers a loose guidebook regarding what’s important to at least mention, most vividly exploring Bernstein’s impact on modern music and the lifelong commitment to social activism that made him an important cultural figure in an era before causes were championed with hashtags.
Even after “Bernstein’s Wall,” the details of the composer and conductor’s private life are slightly more revealed but remain largely private. The wealth of footage on display here indicates that Bernstein was remarkably open about many parts of his history, but it feels like it’s going to take someone a little less close to the musical icon to break down certain truths.
“Bernstein’s Wall” has its world premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.