THE STORY – The life of classical music figure Leonard Bernstein, whose passion and drive took him well beyond the marvelous music he wrote and conducted.
THE CAST – Leonard Bernstein
THE TEAM – Douglas Tirola (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
When director Douglas Tirola set out to make a documentary about legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, he had one rule: He only wanted to tell the story in Bernstein’s own words. What did the composer have to say about his life? What commentaries did he have to offer about his highs and lows? It’s an admirable mission and a challenging one at that. Inside “Bernstein’s Wall,” there are no talking heads or interviews from anyone other than the man himself, along with archive footage and photography. For both devoted fans and interested newcomers, “Bernstein’s Wall” is an illuminating look at one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century, told all by him.
I fall into the latter camp of the interested newcomer. Of course, I’m familiar with much of his work but know very little about Bernstein himself. He was a complex man, a figure with no easy comparison today. It’s fascinating to see a classical music figure launched into superstardom. While social justice is en vogue for many celebrities today, Bernstein set the standard for using one’s celebrity to make a real-world impact. The documentary makes it clear that Bernstein was an idealist, in the best sense of the word.
Tirola’s film spends a great deal of time exploring Bernstein’s political activism, which sometimes landed him harsh criticism. He participated in many demonstrations, anti-Vietnam War protests, and civil rights marches throughout his life. One of the only times we hear someone else speak in the film is a brief clip of Harry Belafonte telling a news crew that Bernstein and other celebrities would be joining him on a march. Well respected in most circles, Bernstein practiced what he preached, described his deep love for people, and this played out in how he lived. It likely would’ve been easy for him to rake in the money he was making as an artist and stay silent about his convictions. Instead, his outspoken nature often made him a lightning rod for controversy. Hearing Bernstein’s confrontations with President Richard Nixon are fascinating, as are his brushes with the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
For better or worse, celebrity defined much of Bernstein’s life, but the film also focuses on his renowned conducting and composing. Watching the man conduct is brilliant every time it comes on screen. His energy, seriousness, and purpose are crystal-clear when he steps in front of an orchestra. One of the most memorable clips shows Bernstein teaching a young conductor, and you can see the intense nerves rattling through this student, with the legend watching him from behind. Bernstein corrects him and steps up to show the young man how to improve. He was firm, never shying from direct criticism, but ultimately kind in showing him the ropes. The film vividly illustrates his passion for music time and again, making us feel that connection as well.
The conceit of “Bernstein’s Wall” is not without flaws, however. By restricting the documentary to only using Bernstein’s own words, sections of his life are glossed over or skipped altogether. Two of his most significant works of art, “West Side Story” and “Our Town,” receive surprisingly little coverage. More importantly, the film doesn’t get to explore Bernstein’s sexuality in depth. Understandably, this is due to Bernstein’s silence on the matter throughout his life, as he never publicly discussed his orientation. The film works around this slightly, using letters written to and from his wife Felicia to comment on the subject. In the letters, they both acknowledge his sexuality, but the issue is left at that.
Despite this, “Bernstein’s Wall” is a vivid portrait of one of the defining artists of the 20th century. He made a significant impact around the globe that reverberates today (Right now, we’re awaiting the release of a new “West Side Story” later this year). This documentary is never hagiographic but invites a new generation to explore Leonard Bernstein’s life and art with a fresh perspective.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Illuminating and personal. Tells us the composer’s story from his perspective. Thorough and insightful, whether you know much about Bernstein or not.
THE BAD – By exclusively using recordings of Bernstein himself, it occasionally limits the scope of the film.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10