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Jungle boogie

In its fourth season, 'Mozart In The Jungle' is maturing into something special

Santino Fontana and (right) Gael Garcia Bernal in ‘Mozart In The Jungle’.
Santino Fontana and (right) Gael Garcia Bernal in ‘Mozart In The Jungle’.

They say geniuses deserve to be indulged.

That might sound like patriarchal claptrap in this #MeToo age where we are urgently separating art from artist, and need to question the very idea of celebrity. We must rethink placing creators on pedestals, but for now we still mollycoddle the greats. This is what Mozart In The Jungle offers, an uneven but pleasurable cheeseboard of eccentricity, with dashes of brilliance. The show is created by the delightfully obtuse director Roman Coppola, features Gael García Bernal and Malcolm McDowell in author-backed roles as impossibly talented men, and, every now and then, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart shows up. What’s not to love?

This is a show featuring classical musicians running wild through the urban forests of Manhattan (and beyond; this season’s loveliest episode is set in a tea room in Japan). Yet I would call it a show primarily about indulgence.

Bernal, the narrative impetus, plays the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. His Rodrigo De Souza is astronomically gifted and infuriatingly mercurial, forever exhorting his orchestra to tap into ineffable passion, to—in his words—“play with the blood". Bernal plays this weirdo with lightly manic grace, spry like a football player. This wonderfully offsets McDowell’s ageing conductor Thomas Pembridge, a has-been who admirably refuses to go into the night, and experiments boldly with his music. It is, I admit, particularly thrilling to watch McDowell and remember him as Alex from The Clockwork Orange. He may be all grown up, but he remains besotted by his old friend “Ludwig Van".

For its first three seasons, this Amazon original series gave these men all the leeway in the world, even as the women around them raced to keep up with their tantrums and idiosyncrasies. The series protagonist, oboe-wielding Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) idolized Rodrigo and enabled his mood swings, resulting in the maestro trampling all over her feelings as he whimsically hopped from project to project and woman to woman.

All that changes in the new fourth season, as the show goes from being a classical-music comedy to a surprisingly sure-footed romantic drama. Rodrigo De Souza leaps headlong into a full-blown romantic relationship with Rutledge (whom he calls “Hai Lai"), but she is no longer the starry-eyed oboist willing to be trod upon. Rodrigo is not equipped to deal with an actual person, having been so emotionally pampered, especially by her. Similarly, Pembridge—deeply in love with the president of the New York Symphony, Gloria, played by the fabulous Bernadette Peters—has his work cut out for him. These women aren’t putting up with any guff. The show is still about indulgence, and now it is cutting those that have been indulged down to size.

The toughest challenge, I believe, with setting a comedy in the world of classical music is that (in most cases) our ears aren’t classically trained. We aren’t aware where a performance is going off-kilter, and can’t pick up on a conductor’s improvisations, or when a performance ascends to unexpected brilliance. A violin solo is not quite like a guitar solo, and a baton furiously stabbing the air is even less so. Mozart In The Jungle coaches us via its ensemble cast, their reactions giving us cues, raised eyebrows or furrowed brows—or, thanks to the expansive Rodrigo, exultant war-whoops—telling us when the music flies or falters. It is a risky approach, but the show handles it well.

The third season, which I wrote about last year, went all operatic, with Monica Bellucci playing a legendary singer, La Fiamma, and contained many a spellbinding aria. This year, with Rutledge trying to become a conductor herself, the makers of the show have given us much, much more music to go with the narrative. There is a lot of standing on the symphonies of giants, naturally, but also plenty of mad musicians, some of whom like their orchestras accompanied by motorcycles.

“Only naive people are cynical," says Rodrigo, in a rare moment of anger towards a fellow artist. “Don’t be cynical." We must take heed. Mozart In The Jungle is maturing into something special, and this season’s shift into a touching drama has given it actual romantic and artistic stakes. The show was always deliciously playful. Now it is—at long last—playing with the blood.

Indian DJs get their groove on

Meanwhile, in India, Amazon Prime has started a show called The Remix, which looks like any other talent hunt, except that it concentrates on music production. A singer and a DJ team up to create a dance floor worthy remix, and are judged largely on innovation. The three judges are all aces: music producer Nucleya, singer Sunidhi Chauhan, and (highly shy) music director Amit Trivedi.

I’ve seen the first three episodes (new episodes are out every Friday) and I’m reasonably hooked. Watching a reality competition on a streaming platform means we’re saved from artists pleading for votes, and—here’s the kicker—we can forward through the lacklustre performances.

The best thing about the show may be the unassuming Nucleya, who has a proper Taika Waititi look and vibe. He is a discerning judge, and points out specific portions of the remixed tracks to appreciate or critique—something the show wisely accompanies with a sports-style action replay. Crucially, he also appears at home saying things like “glitch-hop".

The performers give it their all. Their virtuosity might not be evident, but the promise certainly is. The show introduces a wealth of talent. I, for one, wasn’t aware of India’s most skilled turntablist, DJ Skip. This may not be Coke Studio, I agree, but we need to start celebrating music made for all audiences, including those who dig funkstep and those who use the word “sick" as a compliment. This is a louder studio—and a whole other coke.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

Raja Sen tweets at @rajasen

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