Let me start by stating that there is no actor I can think of who is as blessed with a ready, genuine and overwhelming smile as Gael Garcia Bernal. One might look at him and see the other things that make him attractive – the eyes, for example – but it is the smile that disarms completely.
But then if you just catch a quick glimpse of the man from a distance, sporting a beard and a certain haircut, and think, “Add a Members Only jacket”, you get a passing resemblance to Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I know – it’s not very flattering, and it’s not something one would say if she could see the actor up close. It’s a bit funny considering Gael Garcia Bernal’s role in Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, playing an Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned in Iran during Ahmadinejad’s time in office.
Given the opportunity to see Gael Garcia Bernal lead an ensemble cast as the most eccentric of what are arguably all eccentric characters (all members or patrons of a New York City orchestra). His character comes along to breathe new life into a staid and loss-making institution, and the story follows his peculiarities as much as it follows several others, including Lola Kirke as the young oboe player, Hailey, who is not quite ready for the big time but acts as an assistant at the orchestra, answering to Garcia Bernal’s character (the new conductor, Rodrigo De Souza) who never fails to pronounce her name as “Jai alai”. By the end of the first season, which I binge-watched on Amazon, Hailey knew how to make maté just the way the Maestro likes it. I won’t spoil anything else about it because it’s simply a slightly addictive glimpse inside the crazy world of orchestral players and all their personal quirks.
There are some great characters and performances and a mini Mozart-Salieri style rivalry between the old guard (the orchestra’s former conductor, played by Malcolm McDowell, being put out to pasture – but not without larger-than-life egotistical monstrosities being put on display, much to the delight of the viewing audience) and the new. Saffron Burrows, about whom I used to have doubts, plays a cellist and a complex woman with plenty of her own issues. Her character, Cynthia, serves as a kind of mentor for the aforementioned Hailey. Bernadette Peters is the trustee of the failing orchestra – by the way, does Peters ever age? She’s undoubtedly had some work done, but it has been subtle and well-done enough that she does not look artificial. Not the point really. I just found myself shocked to see that the woman is almost 70.
I highly recommend this series – I breezed through the first series, and while it’s not a masterpiece or groundbreaking, it is quite entertaining – largely down to its superb cast.
Incidentally, the book upon which the show is based, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, by Blair Tindall, opens the door to a sort of stranger-than-fiction real-life in tabloids kind of story. Tindall, a professional oboist and later journalist and writer, married the famous Bill Nye the Science Guy – and he left the marriage just a few weeks later. It all took an ugly turn when he filed a restraining order against her after she tried to poison his garden (?!). They have had a bunch of legal wranglings ever since. Alas, it is completely off topic except to point out that the source material for the show was clearly rich.