Leonard Bernstein was a proud warrior of social justice who sought – on and off his conductor’s podium – to change the world. Yes, he was arguably the most important American musician of the 20th century, but as the new documentary “Bernstein’s Wall” argues, the music itself may not have been his most important work.
Directed by Douglas Tirola, the film examines the life and work of Bernstein through the prism of his activism.
The Boston-born composer and conductor was an early and active figure in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King, attending the 1965 march in Selma, and performing in support of the cause. He went to Jerusalem and pleaded for the fall of the walls between Arabs and Israelis. Bernstein was also an early and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.
“Art has never stopped a war, it has never found a job for anyone,” he says in the film. “What he can do is he can move people by allowing them to wake up and be active.”
Bernstein was mostly ridiculed for his activism by new journalist Tom Wolfe, who in 1970 wrote about a fundraiser organized by Bernstein for the Black Panther Party and coined the term “radical chic” based on the event. That put him at the center of the culture war of the time – which looks a lot like today’s – but it didn’t bend Bernstein’s will, the film shows.
“Protesting against pollution and poverty is difficult, not easy. To oppose the military-industrial complex is difficult, not easy, ”he told an anti-war crowd in Times Square in the film. “I’m here to say ‘I’m with you.'”
Bernstein himself narrates nearly all of the film itself, with clips assembled from interviews and TV shows, most of which were forcefully delivered in a direct-to-camera address from an end-of-life profile. They are complemented by some of his written correspondence, which crosses the screen in text with music in the background. And there are some exciting supercuts in Bernstein’s film directing, sweaty and directing the New York Philharmonic in his signature dramatic style.
As he says in the film, he is “possessed by the ideas and ideals of music”, and he indeed looks like a man possessed.
The film premiered in June at the Tribeca Film Festival and played Telluride before coming to Aspen Filmfest, where it will screen on Saturday afternoon.
Triola, best known for his 2015 National Lampoon documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” found in Bernstein an avatar that could express the filmmaker’s perspective on today’s divided and conflicted culture.
“It’s incredibly personal,” Triola said Monday in a telephone interview. “I wanted to use her story to express a number of things I was feeling in the world right now.”
He fell in Bernstein’s story while researching a movie about New York in the 1980s. Triola came across footage of Bernstein’s historic concert in Berlin on Christmas Day 1989, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall a month earlier. Triola remembered seeing the show on TV as a child, but seeing it again piqued her interest when she saw how relevant Bernstein’s social justice work was today.
“It took me on this journey of watching things he said on YouTube and things he wrote and I was really more interested in the way he talked about life and politics and religion, ”Tirola said. “I wanted to find a way to make a movie where I could express these ideas.”
It is striking, after the years of “building the wall” under the Trump administration, how often and with what power Bernstein talks about walls – metaphorical and physical – and his mission to tear them down.
“We have never had in our human history so many borders, barriers, walls, lines of demarcation on such unrealistic maps”, says Bernetein in the film. “David, Jesus, Schiller, Beethoven. How you must suffer.
Diving through the archives to find footage of Bernstein to create a sense of telling his own life story, Tirola found a treasure comprising revealing images of his end of life with Bernstein speaking directly into a camera about his core beliefs.
“That’s why I conduct and write music,” says Bernstein, “because I love people. I pray for the years and the energy to make the contribution that I ultimately want to make.
With an emphasis on social activism, “Bernstein’s Wall” focuses on surprising areas. For example, he spends more time on Bernstein’s later, less political musicals like “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and “MASS” – which have drawn the ire of President Nixon himself, as the House tapes reveal. Blanche played in the document – only on “West Side Story,” which only gets a brief treatment in the film. His influential and acclaimed film scores go almost unnoticed.
Of course, Bernstein’s life and career was so huge that a documentary filmmaker could (and maybe should one day) make 10 feature films about him and not cover everything. For Triola, focusing on activism made her choices clear.
“My interest was that Leonard Bernstein was trying to answer the question, ‘What is the role of an artist? And what is the role of the artist in creating a change in the world? ‘ Said Triola. “I was trying to figure out how to tell the parts of the story that you expect to hear, but then deliver unexpected moments.”
Biographical details – his father’s emigration from Russia to the United States, his studies at the Curtis Institute and his first summer in Tanglewood, his marriage, his children, his male lovers, his relationship with Aaron Copland, his concerts very popular young people – are closely linked to the activism that remains at the center of the Tirola documentary.
The viewer sees Bernstein at the forefront of social justice work for decades, showing little doubt about his concepts of right and wrong and no qualms about using his public platform in the name of progress. Sometimes that means supporting Duke Ellington or spotlighting a black soloist at the New York Phil, or stepping behind the Iron Curtain after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to give a series of lectures and concerts in Russia.
“It was a State Department sponsored friendship mission,” Bernstein says in the film at the start of a fascinating section detailing his friendship with John F. Kennedy.
Bernstein fought during the last months of his life in 1990. As to whether artists could have an impact, Bernstein concluded: “The artist can change the world but he cannot necessarily change the world. through his art.