Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

There’s a moment in the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle when the camera cuts to a lively party in progress at a spacious New York City apartment. Young people are scattered throughout the room, which is abuzz with chatting and drinking. One character scratches a record back and forth on a turntable before the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen begins to play over the speakers. Gleefully, the character shouts:

“Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

It was then my suspicions were confirmed—this show was going to be a glorious mess.

The first season of Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Amazon Prime Video in December 2014. It continued for three more seasons before ending its run in 2018. Loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name, this fictional dramedy series follows the story of young oboist Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) as she tries to make it in New York City’s vibrant and competitive classical music scene. Along the way, she must navigate musician egos, backstabbing, blackmailing, mounting expectations, and performance anxiety, not to mention lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sounds fun, right?

Let’s call this one “Mozart in the Jungle out-of-context”

Whenever classical music appears in films or TV shows, the results are always a mixed bag. They either stretch the truth (as much as I adore Amadeus, it’s not the most historically-accurate portrait of Mozart or Salieri), present it as a symbol of the upper-class elite and/or notorious villains (hello, Mr. Bond), or just miss the mark entirely (nothing like trying to sell more Volvos with the music of an unhinged, manipulative mother who’s trying to get her daughter to kill someone). However, there are occasions when the media does get it right. (I’ve always been a fan of this iPad commercial starring Esa-Pekka Salonen.) So, the appearance of Mozart in Jungle sparked lots of excitement and trepidation in the classical community. Would the series finally get classical musicians—and the music itself—right for once?

Well, yes and no.

I was a bit late to jump on the Mozart in the Jungle bandwagon and finally checked it out in early 2022. (Did I binge the entire four seasons in two weeks? Maybe…) Overall, it’s a fun watch. The show is beautifully shot, well-acted, and showcases lots of great music throughout. However, it is—at its core—a total dumpster fire. Some of the plot points resemble a cringy soap opera, certain characterizations and situations are corny and overblown, and the depictions of music-making are often stilted and awkward. (Were the actors actually taught how string instruments work?) While the show’s writing and overall presentation do improve as the seasons progress, I still found myself laughing in disbelief at many parts and wondering, “Who the heck came up with this?”

After finishing the series, I decided to compile a list of just some of my Mozart in the Jungle “highs and lows.” Taking an unabashedly-cheesy cue from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I have divided these into three categories: 1) “The Good” highlights things that I generally liked/loved about the series; 2) “The Huh?” highlights things that I found odd, confusing, or unbelievable; and 3) “The Oh No…” highlights things that made me want to hurl a rock at my computer screen. It’s worth pointing out that my observations and takeaways stem from my experience and knowledge as a classical musician, arts administrator, and music historian, along with things I have read and heard from other people.

Even though I would jokingly classify Mozart in the Jungle as a “dumpster fire,” it’s a beautiful and hugely entertaining one at that. I genuinely loved it, warts and all. In a world where classical music is often ignored completely, how incredible is it to have an entire series where it’s the main focus? And though the show wildly misunderstands and mishandles certain aspects, if it has inspired at least one person to delve into this wonderful musical world on a deeper level, then it will have done its job. And that, right there, is a reason to put on Carmen at full blast and shout, “Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

The Good

  • The classical music featured throughout the series is genuinely great overall. Yes, there are the usual suspects, like Beethoven 5 and the aforementioned Bizet, but many of the selections are surprisingly off-the-beaten-path (at least, for those who may not be as well-versed in classical music). To name just a few: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Gesualdo’s “Che fai meco,” Schubert’s “Die Junge Nonne,” Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel, and Villa-Lobos’s Fifth Bachianas Brasileiras. Incredibly, there’s also a whole episode dedicated to the music of Messiaen (!!). So, bravi tutti to the people who chose the music for the series!
  • There are several cameos from real-life classical musicians peppered throughout the series. Many of these are legit fun and charming. Look out for Joshua Bell, Caroline Shaw, Gustavo Dudamel, Nico Muhly, Alan Gilbert, Pablo Heras-Casado, and others.
    • Also, the scene with Emanuel Ax playing Dance Dance Revolution in a bar is GOLD and deserves its own bullet point. That is all.
Dudamel’s cameo is a delight (and a sort of *wink* to the audience since Rodgrio is loosely modeled off Dudamel)
  • The show generally does an excellent job showcasing how tough the classical music industry can be. It’s competitive, stressful, draining, and yes, it can be truly terrible sometimes.
  • Several of the show’s characters are great. Some of my personal favorites:
    • Rodrigo De Souza – this young, hotshot conductor is a bit “much” at times, but he ends up being super fun and endearing (and the performance by Gael García Bernal is excellent)
    • Gloria Windsor – the president of the New York Symphony, wonderfully portrayed by the inimitable Bernadette Peters (and she gets to sing in one episode, so bonus points!)
    • Mike – fun side character who has an arm tattoo of Franz Liszt
    • Pavel – the Eastern European stagehand for the orchestra. Also has one of my favorite lines in the entire series: “The Papal throne is covered in tiny bites and poops.”
    • Betty Cragdale – the dramatic principal oboist of the New York Symphony (she also plays into one of the “facepalm-iest” scenes in the whole series. See below…)
    • Winslow Elliot – a bit cheesy, but ultimately fun riff on Glenn Gould, played by Wallace Shawn
    • Dee Dee – the hippie, drug-dealing timpanist of the New York Symphony (who came up with this idea?)
    • Morton Norton – a delightfully creepy classical music collector who has a Carlo Gesualdo obsession (lol)
  • Thomas Pembridge’s music in the show was composed by Missy Mazzoli and Laura Karpman. Pretty neat.
Me when the series began highlighting women composers
  • The series does a pretty admirable job in its later seasons at highlighting women composers. Alongside Caroline Shaw’s cameo (which also features a piece she composed specifically for the show), there are some “appearances” from historical women composers such as Isabella Leonarda, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (played by Chloe Fineman in a pre-SNL role), and Clara Schumann. Amazingly, the series even introduced me to a composer I’d never heard of before—the 20th-century Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. (And her music is really good.)
  • This funny Rodrigo line: “When I’m doing Copland or Messiaen? You know, I always feel the presence of Lenny. Like, just, smelling really bad.”
  • In season 3, episode 1, when Rodrigo is trying to convince the soprano Alessandra to program a work by a contemporary composer on her concert, he says, “How can they be great if none of the greatest performers perform their work?” He makes a good point…
  • The gondola scene with Gloria and Rodrigo in season 3, episode 4 is just ridiculous fun.
  • The way Rodrigo says “Hailey” is forever engrained in my brain. “HAI LAI.”

The “Huh?”

  • In the second episode of the first season, the size of the orchestra rehearsing Mahler 8 is WAAAY too small. There are only 60-70 musicians on stage when you would need 100 at the very least. Also, once Rodrigo decides to cut the Mahler—after a tragic oboe mishap—the replacement piece is… Berlioz’s Hungarian March? Really?? A five-minute concert opener is replacing an 80-minute symphony? Yeah, right.
Actual footage of my face during most of the first season
  • Are we to believe that every single player in the New York Symphony has Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” fully memorized when they give their impromptu performance in the alley (season 1, episode 6)? I guess stranger things have happened, but that seems pretty unlikely.
  • In season 2, episode 9, the players are shown having a sectional on Beethoven 5 immediately before the concert. They’re professionals under a union contract. Spontaneous rehearsals like this would never happen without union approval and payment.
  • Does the fictitious New York Symphony ever play more than one piece of music at a time? The series sure makes it seem like their concerts have only a single work on their programs (perhaps minus their Messiaen concert at Rikers Island).
  • The conditions in which Rodrigo is examining a manuscript score of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 are pretty eyebrow-raising. A rare Mozart manuscript like that would more than likely have to be kept in a temperature- and light-controlled archive, not in some random library display case. At least he’s wearing gloves.
Rodrigo casually checking out a rare Mozart manuscript in a non-temperature-controlled public library. *Cringes in D major*
  • While the Messiaen episode (season 3, episode 7) is neat overall, there are some odd things. The musicians seem surprised about the repertoire when Rodrigo is passing out parts on the bus. Did they not rehearse beforehand? Messiaen’s music is super difficult and would definitely warrant rehearsals, especially with a piece as complex as the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Also, the cut they make to “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” from the Quartet for the End of Time is super awkward.
  • Similarly, in the final episode of the series, Hailey is called on to cold conduct Asyla, a new piece for the orchestra by the fictitious composer Hesbe Ennis. This is pretty hard to believe. The piece—which exists in real life and was composed in 1997 by the fantastic British composer Thomas Adès—is extremely challenging and would have required lots of focused rehearsal time with the orchestra. Amazingly, she pulls it off, so more power to her, I guess.
  • At one point in season 4, Thomas calls the Queens Philharmonic “garbage,” but when we first hear them, they’re… actually pretty good. What gives? (Also, you gotta love Wallace Shawn’s flaming piano performance with the orchestra in the fifth episode of season 4.)
  • The series just… ends. I realize that the show wasn’t renewed after four seasons, but it’s still disappointing. Had the creators been aware of this, it would’ve been nice to have some of the plot points more or less wrapped up. I must know what happens between “Hai Lai” and Rodrigo!! (I honestly love/hate how invested I became in this show…)

The “Oh No…”

  • The instrument miming in the series is just… so bad. The actors “playing” woodwinds and brass mostly get away with it—they’ve at least got keys or valves to work with—but the string miming is atrocious in general. (And in the first season especially, there are all these dramatic close-up shots that make it totally clear they’re not playing.)
Hoo boy, the instrument miming in this show…
  • Alongside this, Hailey’s conducting technique is not great. To be fair, though, really no one’s conducting technique is good in the show. Someone needs to get in there and tell them that they are bound to have back problems later in life if they continue to flail around like that.
  • Cringiest lines of dialogue that made me want to crawl into a hole:
    • Cynthia (the New York Symphony’s principal cellist) when discussing how different types of musicians are in bed: “Pianists… typically they fall into two general groups: jazz and classical. I go for jazz. [Hailey: “Why?”] Improvisation: they play off you. Also, they’re into ensembles.” *Eye roll*
    • Bradford Sharpe, a classical podcast host: “That was Xenakis with Analogiques A+B. You’re listening to another edition of ‘B Sharpe,’ a musical podcast where classical music is our forte.” There’s just… so much here.
    • Union Bob (the Symphony’s piccolo player) to Cynthia: “Sorry, Schubert has a weird effect on me.” Me too, Bob, me too.
    • Andrew Walsh (a douchebag cellist) to Hailey and Cynthia: “Now, this might be a little bit forward, but do either of you care to join me to see Lang Lang play tonight?” BARF.
    • Hailey to Rodrigo: “I don’t want to give a sh*t about messing up someone’s day so long as it’s in service of my art!” I know Hailey isn’t in the healthiest state of mind at the end of season 4, but this is a super common and toxic idea in the arts industry, and I wish the problems of this statement were addressed more explicitly.
    • Another from Bradford Sharpe, to Hailey’s roommate, Lizzie: “You’re right, I am a hoarder… for your love.” Seriously, who wrote this dialogue?
    • Gloria, after the ceiling of the orchestra’s hall collapses due to a rat infestation: “Furthermore, we are the proud landlords of what I am told is a super intelligent rodent community, due to their prolonged exposure to classical music.” *Facepalm*
    • Another from Andrew Walsh: “Yo-Yo Ma? Yo mamma, Yo-Yo Ma!” Did the writers think this is the classical music equivalent of a sick burn?
  • Cringiest classical musician cameo: Plácido Domingo. And his scene’s dialogue has not aged well at all. Here’s an example… Plácido to Alessandra: “Alessandra, are you cold?” Alessandra replies: “Not in your arms, Plácido.” YIKES and DOUBLE YIKES.
  • In season 1, episode 8, a young philanthropist gets the wrong idea during an oboe lesson with Hailey and ends up with her oboe… in her bed… completely naked. After forcefully dismissing him, Hailey frantically sanitizes her oboe with wipes and sanitizing spray. This is a HUGE no-no, as it would completely ruin the cork pads of the instrument.
When “Johann Sebastian Cach” shows up at Betty’s party
  • At Betty Cragdales’s party celebrating her anniversary with the New York Symphony (season 2, episode 7), a stripper appears partway through the gathering. The stripper’s name? “Johann Sebastian Cach.” NO TO ALL OF THAT.
  • The small arc of Thomas becoming a minor EDM celebrity is a bit of a cringe-fest.
  • In season 3, episode 3, Cynthia is teaching music to elementary school children while the orchestra is on strike. At the end of the lesson, she puts her cello into its case, which is balanced precipitously on top of a rolling classroom cart. Um… wouldn’t a professional musician want to be a little more careful with their supposedly priceless instrument?
  • When Rodrigo loses connection to his “muses” Mozart and Beethoven in season 4, they are replaced by… Liberace. I know it’s meant for laughs, but it’s kind of a bad take on the unfortunate, elitist “divide” that many still perceive between “highbrow” art (i.e., classical music) and “lowbrow” art (i.e., everything else).
  • In season 4, the sub-plot about an AI completing Mozart’s Requiem brought up some all-too-real nightmares of the recent AI completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony (which I have written about previously on this blog).
  • The partial performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto by Ana Maria (Rodrigo’s ex wife) at the end of season 1 is a hilarious mess and the pure definition of “dumpster fire.”
Other Reviews:

One thought on “Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

  1. It’s always interesting what things we can suspend our disbelief for and what we can’t. It seems like something is always going to be compromised. I love Amadeus because of its incredible script and extremely accurate mise en scene, but as biography it’s of course laughable. It’s a great movie with some great accuracy (all the actors learned to play all the music in their scenes, so there’s a visual sync which is rare in movies), but understandably a historian may bristle at the narrative changes, some of which have perpetuated myths of Mozart’s life (the Salieri relationship, the funeral in the rain, etc.).

    On the other hand, something completely accurate is likely to make for bad drama, so using shorthands or fudging some details may be necessary to make these things cinematic. I always get frustrated when there’s seemingly so little attention to detail for music scenes in movies and television, but a more general audience may not notice. Sometimes it’s so laughable that anyone could notice, and cringeworthy dialogue name-dropping pieces is obnoxious, but even with consultants on set I would imagine the producers don’t really care about the details as long as the product looks good and gets good ratings.

    What seems so interesting with your writeup is that this show seems to oscillate between these different poles constantly, namely between accuracy and believability. Sometimes, the cameos and choice of pieces are great for a number of reasons without dragging down the narrative or adding too much baggage for a lay viewer. Other times, the show relies too much on shorthand, falling back into tired tropes (like highbrow elitism or artists not compromising out of auteuristic ego). I haven’t seen this show, but this is such an interesting write-up because it seems that the show is a microcosm of all the kinds of issues that are present in music biopics. What elements need to be accurate, and what elements can be softened for dramatic flow? It seems that at times this show pulled off an Amadeus, where it was good in spite of its inaccuracies, and other times it seems to suffer from trying to make too many in-references to the extent of being cringey and breaking the suspension of disbelief.

    All that to say, great post, Kevin! Lots of interesting things to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

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