Man on a Mission
Director Douglas Tirola on making ‘Bernstein’s Wall’
What: ‘Bernstein’s Wall’
Where: Aspen Filmfest, Isis Theatre
When: Saturday, Sept. 25, 2 p.m.
How much: $20-$25
More info: The screening will be followed by a pre-recorded Q&A with director Douglas Tirola; proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test result required for all attendees; masks required during screening; aspenfilm.org
Leonard Bernstein was a proud social justice warrior who sought — on his conductor’s podium and off — to change the world. Yes, he was arguably the most important American musician of the 20th century, but as the new documentary “Bernstein’s Wall” argues, the music itself hat may not have been his most important work.
Directed by Douglas Tirola, the film looks at Bernstein’s life and work through the lens of his activism.
The Boston-bred composer and conductor was an early and active figure in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King, attending the 1965 march in Selma and performing in support of the cause. He traveled to Jerusalem and advocated bringing down walls between Arabs and Israelis. Bernstein was also an early and outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam.
“Art never stopped a war, it never got anybody a job,” he says in the film. “What it can do is it can move people whereby they can wake up and be active.”
Bernstein was most famously ridiculed for his activism by the new journalist Tom Wolfe, who in 1970 wrote about a fundraiser Bernstein hosted for the Black Panther Party and coined the term “radical chic” based on the event. It put him in the center of the era’s culture war — which looks a lot like today’s — but it didn’t bend Bernstein’s will, the film shows.
“Protesting pollution and poverty is hard, not easy. Opposing the military industrial complex is hard, not easy,” he tells an anti-war Times Square crowd in the film. “I’m here to say ‘I’m with you.'”
Bernstein himself narrates nearly all of the film himself, with clips stitched together from interviews and television programs, much it delivered powerfully in a direct address to the camera from a late-in-life profile. They’re supplemented by some of his written correspondence, which runs across the screen in text with music in the background. And there are some thrilling supercuts in the film of Bernstein conducting, drenched in sweat and leading the New York Philharmonic in his signature high-drama style.
As he puts it in the film, he is “possessed by the ideas and ideals of music,” and he indeed looks like a man possessed.
The film premiered in June at the Tribeca Film Festival and played Telluride before coming to Aspen Filmfest, where it will screen Saturday afternoon.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 24
2 p.m.: ‘Breaking Bread,’ Isis Theatre
5: ‘A Hero,’ Wheeler Opera House
7:30: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,’ Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)
8: ‘Spencer,’ Wheeler
SATURDAY, SEPT. 25
2 p.m.: ‘Bernstein’s Wall,’ Isis
5: ‘Flee,’ Wheeler
5: ‘Breaking Bread,’ Crystal
7:30: ‘The Guilty,’ Crystal
8: ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ Wheeler
SUNDAY, SEPT. 26
2 p.m.: ‘Petite Maman,’ Isis
4: ‘Bergman Island,’ Wheeler
5: ‘Flying Boat,’ Crystal
7: ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ Wheeler
Tirola, best known for his 2015 National Lampoon documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” found in Bernstein an avatar who could express the filmmaker’s perspective on today’s divided and divisive culture.
“It’s incredibly personal,” Tirola said Monday in a phone interview. “I wanted to use his story to express a number of things I was feeling at this moment in the world.”
He fell into the Bernstein story while researching a film about New York in the 1980s. Tirola stumbled upon footage of Bernstein’s historic concert in Berlin on Christmas Day 1989, celebrating the Berlin Wall’s fall a month earlier. Tirola remembered seeing the broadcast on television as a kid, but seeing it anew piqued his interest as he saw how relevant Bernstein’s social justice work was to today.
“It led me on this journey of looking at things he said on YouTube and things he’d written and I was really more interested in how he talked about life and politics and religion,” Tirola said. “I wanted to find a way to make a movie where I could express these ideas.”
It is striking, in the wake of the “build the wall” years under the Trump Administration, to note how many times and how powerfully Bernstein talks about walls — metaphorical and physical — and his mission to bring them down.
“We have never before in our human history had so many boundaries, barriers, walls, dividing lines on such highly unrealistic maps,” Bernetein says in the film. “David, Jesus, Schiller, Beethoven. How you must be suffering.”
Archive-diving to find footage of Bernstein to create the sense of narrating his own life, Tirola found a treasure trove including revelatory footage from late in life with Bernstein talking directly into a camera about his core believes.
“That is why I conduct and write music,” Bernstein says, “because I love people. I am praying for the years and the energy to make the contribution that I ultimately want to make.”
With its focus on social activism, “Bernstein’s Wall” places emphasis in some surprising areas. For instance, it spends more time on Bernstein’s later, lesser political musicals like “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and “MASS” — which drew the ire of President Nixon himself as revealed in White House tapes played in the doc — than it does on “West Side Story,” which gets just a brief treatment in the film. His influential and acclaimed film scores go nearly unmentioned.
Of course, Bernstein’s life and career was so huge, a documentarian could (and maybe should someday) make 10 features about him and not cover it all. For Tirola, focusing on the activism made his choices clear.
“My interest was Leonard Bernstein trying 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?'” Tirola said. “I was trying to figure out how to tell the parts of the story that you expect to hear but then to deliver some moments that are unexpected.”
The biographical details — his father’s emigration from Russia to the U.S., education at Curtis Institute and first summer at Tanglewood, his marriage, his kids, his male lovers, his relationship with Aaron Copland, his massively popular Young People’s Concerts — are intertwined with the activism that remains center stage in Tirola’s documentary.
The viewer witnesses Bernstein on the front lines of social justice work for decades, showing little doubt about his concepts of right and wrong and no compunction about using his public platform in the name of progress. At times, that means supporting Duke Ellington or spotlighting a Black soloist at the New York Phil, or going behind the Iron Curtain after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 to give a series of lectures and concerts in Russia.
“It was a mission of friendship sponsored by the State Department,” Bernstein says in the film at the beginning of a fascinating section detailing his friendship with John F. Kennedy.
Bernstein fought on, through the last months of his life in 1990. As to the question of whether artists could have an impact, Bernstein concluded: “The artist can change the world but he can’t necessarily do it through his art.”