The sun is setting on the Williamsburg waterfront as Gael Garcia Bernal squints his eyes—those piercing, perfect eyes—on the Manhattan skyline. That chiseled-out-of-stone jawline of his starts bouncing as he hums the most recognizable part of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, before becoming more soulful about the piece.
“The beginning of that piece is one minute of cellos and violas,” he says. “Oh man, it’s one of the most emotional, amazing pieces of music you can ever listen to.”
Bernal is the star of Amazon’s latest original series, Mozart in the Jungle, which gets its big roll out on the fledgling streaming service December 23. The New York-set dramedy takes its tagline from Blair Tindall’s 2006 memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.
After chatting Tchaikovsky with Gael Garcia Bernal against the breathtaking backdrop of a New York sunset, it’s clear that Amazon has at least two of those things covered in its new series. It’s true of Mozart in the Jungle: never has classical music been so sexy.
Much like the memoir that inspired it, the new series pulls the curtain back on a New York symphony, revealing the surprising seedy underbelly that thrives in a world better known for its reputation for elegance, stuffiness, and woeful tradition.
To that regard, the very first line of the series is, “It’s easier with the lips slightly wet.” As the camera zooms out from its close-up on the mouth of the very alluring Lola Kirke (Gone Girl), who plays a young oboist named Hailey, it becomes clear that she was moistening her woodwind’s reed. But the entendre and innuendo permeates the rest of the series—often innocently, but sometimes far more blatantly.
When Hailey meets a worldly cellist named Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), Cynthia becomes her mentor and guide through the classical musical industry, apparently in aspects of both business and pleasure. Cynthia helps Hailey, an undiscovered prodigy toiling in the orchestra of a crappy Broadway show, land an audition for the prestigious New York symphony, and also offers a bit of, um, handy advice.
“There’s a direct correlation between what a man does for a living and the way he fucks,” she tells Hailey over drinks, as a montage plays and you blush. “Violinists, for example, they tend to cum quickly. It’s all those arpeggios. Percussionists pound you like you’re in a porno. Kind of fun for about ten minutes. Good cardio.”
Forget everything you assumed about the lives of classic musicians. Turns out, they’re not so boring. Mozart in the Jungle, then, is like Girls meets Amadeus.
The show was co-created by Paul Weitz, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman, after the latter of the trio read about Tindall’s book in The New York Times.
“I’ve always been daunted by classical music because it’s so scary,” Schwartzman says.
“And exotic and luxurious,” Coppola adds.
“It’s always had a gloss that made it impenetrable,” Schwartzman continues. “Then I read the review and bought the book when it came out and was like, wow, here’s a world I didn’t even know was there.”
There are two clever narratives happening in Mozart in the Jungle which are bridged together by Kirke’s character, Hailey. She’s the audience’s eyes, in one respect, the wayward twentysomething who is entranced by classical music but who has no idea about this “seedy underbelly” that’s in store when she becomes a part of that world.
“It turns out they’re human beings, too,” Kirke says. “And they’re artists, ultimately.” Then, with a grin, “And we all know how degenerate those people are.”
For all the seediness of this world, though, there’s a more pressing mood permeating it: desperation, as it struggles for relevance in today’s world.
Bernal’s character, Rodrigo, is the kind of sexy young wunderkind that lands on the cover of Rolling Stone and goes by his first name only. He’s basically the Cher of conducting. While Rodrigo is a creative genius, he’s also an enfant terrible of music threatening the old guard, represented in this case by the New York Symphony’s former conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), who he is brought in to replace in one of the series’ first scenes, and Bernadette Peters’s chairwoman of the board, Gloria.
“They invite him because of who he is,” says Schwartzman of the avant-garde virtuoso, “and then he starts to put some of that in play and they’re like, ‘No, no no! We don’t want anything too risky!’” One of Rodrigo’s plans involves turning off the house lights to play the symphony in complete darkness. “What’s next?” barks McDowell’s Thomas. “Bring a pet to the symphony day?”
So there are two things at hand here, then: combatting the myth that classical musicians are all totally square people, and combatting the reality that classical music is at risk of irrelevance. Both are independently fascinating enough to be TV premises in their own right, but work together in harmony to create a show that’s equal parts whimsical, salacious, melodramatic, and still quite resonant.
That second, more profound battle becomes a particularly meta one, too, when you think of this show’s very existence. It’s perhaps the reason sex and drugs are so played up in Mozart in the Jungle’s marketing when, as Coppola points out, as “titillating and fun as that descriptor is and we have those sparks in the show, in fairness to what we’re doing, [the show] is not entirely seedy like that.” Schwartzman adds, “We were like we can’t just make it about sex and drugs. It would become novel at some point.”
What you have, though, is a show about how modern pop-culture consumers aren’t interested in classical music, which is in turn sending the industry into a tailspin. It’s an interesting exercise, how do you get a TV audience to watch a show about the world of classical music, when the show is about how audiences don’t care about classical music? The answer, apparently, is with sex and drugs.
Kirke, the 23-year-old younger sister of Girls star Jemima Kirke, is a good example of that herself. “Whenever I put on classical music I feel like I’m in some weird movie,” she says when asked about her previous relationship with the genre. “That it’s a soundtrack.”
So she was an aficionado of classical music, for soundtracks or otherwise? “Oh fuck no,” she says. “I had to google what an oboe was.”
Since filming the show, however, her relationship with classical music has obviously changed. “Um, I have one now, for one,” Kirke laughs, about that new relationship. “And it goes beyond getting my teeth drilled at the dentist office—my dentist really likes classical music.”
“It’s opened me up to a world,” she says. “Truly another world.”
That’s ultimately, the cast and crew resoundingly agree, the goal of Mozart in the Jungle. For Kirke it was being paid to pretend to play the oboe that heightened her affair with classical music. For patrons of the symphony, it’s ballsy—if loose-cannon—creatives like Rodrigo doing experimental work that is igniting their affairs with classical music. For the rest of us, it might be the promise of sex and drugs and Gael Garcia Bernal that will ignite a love of classical music for maybe the first time.
And that’s just fine with everyone.
“It’s the same thing when people are like, ‘What do you think of Broadway now that Disney is there?’” Peters, who knows a thing or two about the subject, says. “I always go, ‘Anything that will get people to come and be fans. They’ll go, I love The Little Mermaid, what else is on Broadway?’ And then they’ll become lifelong fans.”
It’s funny, then, for all the talk surrounding the series’ mission to sex-up the world of classical music, the central question of the show isn’t very racy at all.
“There’s the questions of: is classical music dead? And who’s picking the program at the symphony, the audience or the conductor?” Schwartzman says. In fact, the question, though provocative and culturally important, may not even be new. “Every medium has the dilemma,” Coppola agrees. “Whether it’s cinema or what have you, it’s the question of if it’s sales or artistic integrity that’s driving it.”
In the meantime, though, there’s Gael Garcia Bernal and his beautiful, sexy stare keeping classical music alive—at least on Amazon. Truly, welcome to the jungle.