By C.J. Hirschfield
July 19, 2022
In the upcoming (2023) Netflix biographical film Maestro, based on the life of renowned conductor/composer/pianist Leonard Bernstein, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg producing, there is a scene already circulating on social media of Bernstein passionately kissing his male lover.You will not find this sort of scene depicted in the new documentary film Bernstein’s Wall, which has its San Francisco premiere at the 42nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21-August 7. What you will see, however, is a richly textured biography of a man whose remarkable story includes a deep commitment to his Jewish heritage, to political activism, to his art, to teaching, and to his family. His bisexuality, not so much.The documentary lets the maestro tell his life story, with no narration other than his own. Two video interviews, one from the sixties and one from the seventies, featuring a cigarette-smoking Bernstein often speaking directly to the camera, provide the backbone of the film, supplemented by historical photos, footage, and wonderful animation that brings key letters between himself and his contemporaries to life. As the film’s director Douglas Tirola was quoted as saying about using the charismatic and articulate Bernstein to anchor the film, “When you cast your movie, you cast your fate.” It was a good call.
Haunted by an abusive, religious and unsupportive immigrant father, Bernstein’s s childhood exposure to the piano proved revelatory. “I touched it, and that was it,” he says, referring to his life of music that followed.
Denied the opportunity to serve in WW2 because of his asthma and unable to get a job in New York City, Bernstein admits that he considered suicide. But then, an “unheard of” thing happened—a young (at 25), American Jew was hired to be the assistant conductor of the famed New York Philharmonic. He was asked, but refused, to change his name to “Burns,” a less Jewish-sounding option. When a guest conductor had to cancel soon after his hire, Bernstein received his big break. A standing ovation, followed by a laudatory front-page New York Times review vaulted him to international fame. “Then it all began,” he recalls, “one success after another.”
There are many fascinating anecdotes from this self-proclaimed extrovert’s life. The classic West Side Story, with music by Bernstein, was originally conceived as pitting Jews against Catholics. During the McCarthy era, Bernstein’s passport was revoked because of his alleged Communist ties. A party that Bernstein hosted to raise funds for the Black Panther party became immortalized by a Tom Wolfe New York magazine article entitled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” The maestro’s ties to the Panthers enraged President Nixon, who called him “a son of a bitch.”
Bernstein’s political activism is placed front and center of the documentary.
“I’ve been praying for years to have the energy to make a contribution—not just to art, but to people,” he says, and we’re witness to his participation in the many demonstrations and marches for the cause of civil rights.
And so what about his bisexuality, which in later years, after his beloved wife’s death, he made no effort to hide? Bernstein’s Wall makes brief and subtle references to his affairs with men, and the wild parties he attended, only through letters to and from composer Aaron Copeland and Bernstein’s wife Felicia. But considering the film rests so heavily on video recorded in the closeted age prior to 1980, this is no surprise, nor does it in any way detract from the story of such a large and rich life.
Aside from loathing on the part of Nixon and Haldeman, and the admission of his sister that he “occasionally said something cruel,” this documentary is an ode to the joy that this extraordinary man brought to so many for so long. His own joy (much on display in the film) was tempered by bouts of suicidal thoughts and depression, and a fervent desire to leave this troubled world a better place.
What exactly is the wall in Bernstein’s Wall? Quite likely it refers to the historic concerts in Berlin he conducted to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall—Bernstein changing the words of the music from “Ode to Joy” to “Ode to Freedom.” It has been described by his biographer Humphrey Burton as marking “the absolute climax in the public life of the world citizen Leonard Bernstein.” The maestro died less than a year later, in 1990.
I got the distinct feeling that Maestro Bernstein has very much composed and conducted this fine documentary; it is how he wished to be remembered, and respect will be given.
Bernstein’s Wall screens on Saturday, July 23 at 3pm at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
Watch the complete Berlin Freedom Celebration Concert including the stirring “Ode to Freedom” below.
About Leonard Bernstein website offers hours of fascinating articles, images and music.
The associated Leonard Bernstein YouTube channel has dozens of performances plus excerpts from the Young People’s Concerts. Here is a complete show and an Internet search will bring up many more.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”