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Chicago Critics Film Festival 2021: An Expert on Bernstein’s Wall

Leonard Bernstein achieved many firsts in his extraordinary life; he was the first American-born music director of a major U.S. symphony orchestra (the New York Philharmonic, from 1958 to 1969), the first modern-era conductor equally known as an acclaimed composer and the first maestro to run the awards table, with 16 Grammys (out of 63 nominations), Emmys (10), Tonys (three), the Kennedy Center Honors and an Oscar nomination (for his first and only film score, the seminal “On the Waterfront”).

But the “first” he held closest to his heart was his role as a social activist. He embraced his status as the world’s foremost “celebrity conductor” because people would “ask him to lend his name to causes”—among his primary missions were civil rights, anti-war protest and social justice. That dimension comes to the fore in the documentary “Bernstein's Wall” (2021), which had its world premiere at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in June. Written and directed by Douglas Tirola, the documentary frames Bernstein as “a humanitarian who lived for activism as much as he did for music.”

After subsequent engagements at the Telluride, Nashville, Woodstock, Mill Valley, San Diego, Hamptons, Philadelphia and AFI film festivals, “Bernstein’s Wall” will be screened at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Music Box as part of the eighth annual Chicago Film Critics Festival, with Tirola scheduled to appear for a Q&A session afterward.

Regarded as “one of the most phenomenally gifted and successful renaissance men of music in American history,” Bernstein packed in several lifetimes’ worth of accomplishments before his death in 1990. He left behind three ballets, three operas, nine musical theater works and dozens of orchestral, choral, vocal, chamber music and instrumental compositions. His discography totaled in the hundreds for industry-leading labels such as RCA, Decca, Columbia/Sony and Deutsche Grammophon. Fellow composer Ned Rorem dismissed the prevailing notion that Bernstein had died prematurely: “Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 but 288.”

But in 1969, Bernstein stepped down from his New York Phil directorship because he felt he “had other things to do.” Concerned with growing unrest at home and abroad, Bernstein looked once again to music to effect change. “What other weapon [besides music] do we have to achieve peace?”

Tirola, whose directorial credits include the documentaries “Hey Bartender” (2013), “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” (2015) and “Brewmaster” (2018), might seem to be an unlikely candidate for a Bernstein tribute. He fell into the project by chance, while researching a film about New York in the 1980s. During this search, he revisited the footage of Bernstein leading a historic concert celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The concert reminded Tirola about how Bernstein’s activism remains relevant three decades later. “I’m interested in how Leonard Bernstein tried to answer the question, ‘What’s the role of an artist? And what’s the role of the artist to create change in the world?’ ” 

For Tirola, Bernstein’s quest finds a parallel in contemporary America, deeply divided politically, culturally and socially. “It’s incredibly personal,” he said. “I wanted to use his story to express several issues that concern me at this moment. … And the idea that one person at a time changes the world.”

Forgoing the usual talking heads approach, Tirola relied on archival footage of Bernstein speaking. “If he didn’t talk about it, it couldn’t be in the movie,” he said. Fortunately, Tirola discovered two long interviews, one more than 28 hours alone, from the late ’60s and ’70s: “Finding material was like going to a giant tag sale, sort of like looking for rare gems.”

In addition, Tirola thought Bernstein proved to be his own best advocate. “He’s such a great character,” he said. “There’s an old Hollywood saying that when you cast your movie, you cast your fate. With a documentary, it’s much the same way. Leonard Bernstein just jumps off the screen. I don’t know if there’s anyone I’d hear more than Bernstein.”

As “Bernstein’s Wall” winds through the festival circuit, two Bernstein biopics loom on the horizon. “Maestro,” directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, cashing in on his “A Star Is Born” bankability, focuses on the relationship between the sexually conflicted Bernstein and his wife, Chilean-born pianist Felicia Montealegre. “The American,” directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, reportedly takes a somewhat broader approach. And then there’s the Steven Spielberg remake, in theaters this December, of “West Side Story,” based on Bernstein’s pioneering 1957 musical, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by Arthur Laurents, and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The musical of course spawned the 1961 film, which won 10 Oscars, including best picture.

Let’s leave it to Lenny for the finale. “I love last lines and last bars and last statements,” he once said. And when it comes to legacies, as “Bernstein’s Wall” demonstrates, his remains secure.

Laura Emerick is the Digital Content Editor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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