I once did PR for Insane Clown Posse, but these people are fucking insane.”
Mozart in the Jungle, the latest binge-ready release from Netflix competitor Amazon Prime, has a whole lot going for it right from the start. Like some of the best stories in entertainment, it presents its audience with an exotic foreign world, and, through its characters, demystifies that world for us. In the case of Mozart in the Jungle, that world is the obscure nation of classical music, and the people who keep this centuries-old institution alive and, in certain elite circles, thriving.
You don’t need to know the first thing about classical music to enjoy Mozart in the Jungle, and in fact, it may be better if you don’t. Despite the self-important seriousness of its subject matter, Mozart is anything but. Instead, what we have here is ten lightning-quick episodes that flit from dryly comedic to full-on absurd without much thought for how it gets there. And for the most part, it works: it is certainly entertaining, and easy-breezy to watch. Mozart might then be forgiven for occasionally hitting a few false notes (dang it, and here I thought I’d get through this whole review without making any terrible classical-music puns).
Our audience proxy to lead us behind the curtain of the New York Symphony Orchestra (a glossily fictionalized version of the NY Phil) is Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke). Hailey is a 26-year-old oboist who dreams of playing in the symphony, but is currently resigned to fetching mate for its eccentric new conductor, the mononymous Rodrigo (Gael Garcìa Bernal). Rodrigo is Mozart in the Jungle‘s real centerpiece, which is in part a blessing, thanks to Bernal’s wonderful performance, and a curse, thanks to some lazy character development habits from the creators (Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, Paul Weitz, and Alex Timbers, who also appear to have a round-robin rotation of duties for executive producing, directing, and writing as well).
Although Rodrigo is, according to a quick Google search, supposedly based on conductor/violinist Gustavo Dudamel, he shares a lot more in common with Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Sister Act. Rodrigo’s gonna stir up some trouble amongst some old crotchety white people who are very set in their boring, classical ways. He revolutionizes the symphony by doing bold, brazen-professor things like rehearse without instruments or play in the great outdoors. (Throw in a little Dead Poets Society in there while you’re at it.) Underneath that sexy, flowing mane, is he a genius or a madman? (…and some Captain Jack Sparrow.) See, the problem with Rodrigo isn’t that his character isn’t believable—in fact, his character is perfectly believable, as this is a character we’ve seen and believed many times before. The problem is that Rodrigo as a person is not quite believable as anything other than yet another iteration of a very specific character trope. At least, not yet.
His young ward Hailey does a better job at pulling us in, although her world—that of the struggling outsider—is the least interesting of the many pockets of the Mozart in the Jungle universe. Kirke’s wry and funny Hailey is relatable, but paired with her Bettie-Page-banged Brooklyn wannabe-tattoo-artist roommate Lizzie (Hannah Dunne), her scenes often feel like they were swept up from the cutting room floor of Girls (a show that happens to star Kirke’s lookalike older sister Jemima). Hailey’s romance with dancer Alex (Peter Vack) is also quite cute, and the actors have much more chemistry than, say, Kirke and Bernal, who are obviously being set up as a will-they-won’t-they. (They won’t.)
The true gems of the show are in its supporting cast, where some major actors get to have fun in some zesty character roles. The most important of these is doubtlessly Malcolm McDowell as Rodrigo’s predecessor, who feels he was forced into early retirement from his Maestro career. Bernadette Peters gets to go full Bernadette Peters as the head of the symphony board, drawling lines like, “Maestros: can’t live with them, can’t run a major orchestra without them.”
Most intriguing is Saffron Burrows as Cynthia, a cellist whose reputation as a manipulative sex maven doesn’t preclude her from being beloved by her peers. Intoxicatingly beautiful, she is unabashed about using sex to get what she wants, and no one—including the men she toys with—fault her for it. She’s just too darn awesome. Too bad she’s got a codeine addiction, a side effect of masking the effects of aging on the tendons of a musician.
That’s the other thing about Mozart: it too often tries to adorn itself with sex and glamour, a look that doesn’t always suit it. This is one of the few shows in the Cord-Cutting Era that doesn’t employ nudity or gratuitous sex, while being one of the few shows that might actually be improved by a little raunch. Sure, there’s some infidelity, and the old hippie percussionist deals percoset on the side, but the show’s Jungle is never quite debaucherous enough to live up to its “Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music” tagline.
Other times, one-off scenes and characters take the show into absurd territory, usually involving Rodrigo: Rodrigo communing with dead composers, Rodrigo breaking into a toxic waste facility, Rodrigo being hypnotized by Wallace Shawn (really). While these asides can be fun, they never feel fully screwed on, and Mozart needs to either lean into or step back from the crazy.
The only thing that I truly disliked was the opening title card: six seconds of hot pink “Mozart in the Jungle” text superimposed on a NYC skyline. Not only does it miss the opportunity for a really awesome credit sequence (although I do appreciate the attempt at brevity), it looks almost exactly like a Sex and the City movie poster and it drives me bonkers.
In the end, though, none of Mozart’s tonal inconsistencies are fatal. The show has great promise, it just feels a little early in its run. By the end of it you’re likely to feel as if you’ve watched three episodes rather than ten. That’s the rub for these block releases, though: Schwartzmann & Co. are only receiving feedback after the fact, when they might have benefited greatly from the spacing of week-to-week episodes. But Mozart in the Jungle is in place for a great starting point, and if Amazon has any smarts, I’m sure that next season it’ll be Bach (DANG IT).
The first season of Mozart in the Jungle is available on Amazon Prime.