There aren’t many stains on the legacy of consummate conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, best known as the long-running maestro, front and center, for the New York Philharmonic beginning in the 1950s. But in January 1970 one curious controversy briefly turned Bernstein’s life into a tabloid fixture when Tom Wolfe wrote a New York Magazine essay skewering a benefit party Bernstein held in his home for the Black Panthers as the stuff of “radical chic” — a term the “Bonfire of the Vanities” writer coined to describe a certain strain of limousine liberalism. The party convened the liter- and glitterati of 1970s New York City to support one of the politically active Bernstein’s many causes, but critics like Wolfe interpreted the event as misguided. Wolfe went so far as to call it “slumming.”
The compassionate new documentary “Bernstein’s Wall” spends about five minutes on this episode, clearly a headache-inducing one for Bernstein as revealed in archival interviews (“Oh god,” he says, putting his head in his hands) before his death in 1990. But it’s the most fascinating segment in this well-conceived documentary portrait, adoring but hardly hagiographic, which smartly implements no talking heads. Instead, director Douglas Tirola (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead”) lets Bernstein tells his own story, in his own words, as a Jew growing up in Boston who became a celebrity among New York’s cultural cognoscenti and, eventually, in Hollywood.
Bernstein’s warmth and wit pour out of his testimonies. The picture Wolfe painted of the composer in his New York Magazine article “That Party at Lenny’s,” and later in the book “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” could hardly encapsulate the conviction and integrity of this beloved cultural figure. “Ideologies can be reduced to F sharps and B flats,” says Bernstein, clearly an altruist who stood up to bullies like Richard Nixon when his peers were afraid to do so. Early on in Bernstein’s career, mentor and former New York Philharmonic conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos told Bernstein to change his name because it sounded too Jewish. Bernstein slept on it and the next morning told him no way.
Among the defiant political projects that marked Bernstein’s life was, of course, his sexuality. He took male lovers throughout his lifetime — from a French horn player to an art student in Jerusalem as alluded to in letters excerpted on the screen (albeit in visually bland montages). But his most fervent sexual obsession, surprisingly or not, as posited by this movie was with musical mentor Aaron Copland, who took a 20-something Bernstein under his wing and presaged his pupil’s eventual fame as a major conductor. In some of the spicier letters, Bernstein starts to gradually open up about his growing sexual feelings for Copland, who tells Bernstein he ought to promptly burn them. (Copland was private about his own homosexuality.)
Such tidbits make for a colorful, irreverent portrait. As detailed by the film he had a mostly happy, decades-long marriage to Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, whose death in 1978 wracked Bernstein with guilt long after he’d left her to pursue what, she calls in letters, the “sexual pattern” that often cast a schism into their partnership (i.e. his gayness). Charming vintage footage shows how the two could go toe-to-toe with one another, even while on other sides of a dueling piano. What might be missing for some curious viewers is a deeper dive into Bernstein’s relationships with men.
What’s also curiously glossed over — or at least truncated into a shorter segue than deserved — is Bernstein’s impact in Hollywood. A musical adaptation of the stage show he co-wrote, “On the Town,” became a Hollywood classic but isn’t much explored here. “West Side Story” gets more screentime, as Bernstein shares firsthand about conceiving the story with writer Arthur Laurents poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and that alone probably merits its own documentary. Bernstein’s impact with “West Side Story” was undeniably enormous — especially in a year when Steven Spielberg is about to drop his big, glossy remake — and it’s hard not to feel like “Bernstein’s Wall” minimizes its effects on movie musicals.
To the film’s credit, this autobiographically sketched collage is more about Bernstein’s political commitments and conducting genius than his celebrity and a peek into his inner, philosophizing, often tormented life. The film is also a reminder that the things Bernstein cared about still matter now. He fought for equal rights and democracy in its purest form. He grew up with a fragmented identity living as a Jew in mid-20th-century America, in the shadow of a father who was terrible to his mother, and a lot of his life was about reconciling that legacy.
“Bernstein’s Wall” honors that just fine, melding Bernstein’s gravelly yet strangely soothing voiceover — he was an unabashed chainsmoker — set against briskly edited archival footage. The best documentary comparison in terms of an X-ray of an artistic figure might be “Listen to Me Marlon.” Like that film, “Bernstein’s Wall” moves impressionistically rather than linearly, touching on emotions and feelings as they occur through Bernstein’s testimonies rather than adhering to a biographical timeline. This is a lovely film that will appeal to Bernstein’s most ardent fans, while warmly inviting neophytes into his world.
“Bernstein’s Wall” premiered at Tribeca before playing the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.