Acknowledged as one of the most famous classical conductors and composers of the 20th century Leonard Bernstein was still a man of mystery for many. Even to himself. This film, directed by Thomas von Steinaecker, shows us how this man lived a splintered existence in many ways – personally and artistically. Shows that we didn’t really know him.
Through interviews with his three children – Alexander, Jamie and Nina – and close friends the curtain is lifted on his life. Intimacy is achieved. We learn of all the challenges and difficulties he faced.
Leonard Bernstein was a conductor, pianist and composer. He led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for 11 years from 1958 to 1969. Was one of the first U.S. born conductors to gain world wide acclaim. Thought of as an ambassador for classical music. Conducting music for him was like a drug. It took over his life. Felt the responsibility of communicating others’ work. Also loved the immediate gratification, as opposed to composing, which was delayed. When he resigned as the musical director/conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra it came as a surprise to many. He had finally admitted to the world that he wanted to be composing.
All through this time though he loved what he did he wished to be composing. His career was plagued with the desire to be taken seriously. Especially as a composer. Wanted to prove that West Side Story was not a case of a one hit wonder. Decided the way to do that was to write the great American opera. As he was starting along this path the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked him to run the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As he felt he could not refuse such an honour he accepted. Shortly after his wife Felicia phoned the First Lady back and said while he was honoured wouldn’t it be better to write a piece for the innauguration.
So he began writing “Mass”. It was to be a piece for singers, dancers and players. This is a time of unrest in the U.S. with the Vietnam War going on. A conservative president in Nixon had just been elected. The Bernstein song “Somewhere” became one of resistance in the late 60s. With “Mass” he again wanted to give hope in dark times. Bernstein made a speech against Nixon. Caused some friction. The FBI had been watching him since the 1940s and now they began monitoring his home in Connecticut. “Mass” worried Nixon.
When it came out the critics were ruthless. The New York Times and other big papers made fun of it. Throughout his career critics and academics did not appreciate his work.
His next project was to team up with the lyricist from My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, to start working on a new Broadway musical. It was 18 years after his smash success with West Side Story. The pressure was on though this seemed like a winning duo. The title was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Watergate had just happened. The pressure must have gotten to everyone as it was a total flop. Doomed from the get go. Ended up being one of the biggest failures in the history of Broadway and closed after only seven performances.
Things did not get better in the next decade for Bernstein. Back at home there were problems between him and his wife. He is gay and his wife knows. Instead of hiding in the shadows any longer, bravely he came out. Even moved in with his boyfriend, Tom Cothran. When Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer he moved back in with her until her death in 1978.
His final major work was the opera, A Quiet Place. It came out in 1983 and once again critics hated it. He withdrew it working on it more.
Continuing to conduct with different orchestras he finally retired in 1990. Five days later he died in his New York apartment from a heart attack.
Not going over his more famous work, West Side Story, von Steinaecker focuses on Bernstein’s lesser known works. Works which meant much to the man himself and as such really show us who he truly was. Someone who did not play it safe. He could have just kept making West Side Story knockoffs for the rest of his career. As a true artist he couldn’t. He was a master communicator who wanted to make a connection with his audience using music. Bernstein also used his art to express his social consciousness. He was an activist. Over his career he spoke up about nuclear arms, the apathetic upper middle class, awareness about race issues, and fought for civil liberties.