“Mozart in the Jungle,” the book, was a nonfiction tell-all by an oboist named Blair Tindall that purported to lift the curtain on the world of classical music and show a backstage reality as rife with sex, drugs and venality as — well, any other field, really, but people were too busy tut-tutting at the scandal of it all to think rationally about that. Last year, Amazon produced the pilot episode of an online series bearing the same name; this week, it posted 10 additional episodes online. Rather than lifting the curtain on classical music, however, this series focuses on the sex and drugs while almost gleefully flaunting its utter ignorance of the field, trotting out one cliche and stereotype about classical music after another.
The entertainment industry is famous for getting things wrong about specialized fields, of course. Nurses are said to quail watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “House of Cards” or “Scandal” hardly present realistic portrayals of how things are done in Washington. I had friends who enjoyed the “Mozart in the Jungle” pilot and said I should enjoy it in the spirit in which it was intended, rather than focusing on what they got wrong. Yet the factual errors in “Mozart in the Jungle” are so great that it would be as though someone set out to dramatize the reality show “Deadliest Catch” by showing a group of fishermen sitting on a dock in Alaska trying to catch crabs with fishing rods. If you’re willing to accept that little in this show bears even the remotest relationship to reality, then you may be able to enjoy it.
The show’s creators — Roman Coppola (“Moonrise Kingdom”), Jason Schwartzman (“Grand Budapest Hotel”), Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”), and Alex Timbers (“Peter and the Starcatcher” on Broadway) — have fairly impressive credentials. They amassed serious actors (Bernadette Peters, Gael García Bernal, Saffron Burrows and Malcolm McDowell, to name a few), and they presumably could have had Tindall at their disposal for fact-checking purposes. So it is remarkable to me that no one bothered to run the script by anybody who could point out its significant divergences from fact or, at the very least, show Bernal how to hold a violin (there are close-ups of him “playing” one, bow high up on the fingerboard).
It’s odd, because the show seems to have ambitions and glimmerings of quality, and the acting, outside of the toe-curlingly awful dialogue, is not bad at all. Peters and Bernal, in particular, can almost convince you through sheer magnetism that you’re watching something credible; Peters, in her role as chairman of the symphony board (a job that the show’s creators evidently confused with actually running the orchestra), sheds some of her signature tics to become a reasonably well-meaning but somewhat malign lady who lunches. Then, just as you’re willing to believe that Bernal could, in fact, be a charismatic musical visionary (his character evokes Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan Wunderkind conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), the show decides to show him in conversation with Mozart, powdered wig and all. And if you think this sounds like a way to show how exalted and powerful classical music is, well, be my guest.
Tindall’s book used her life story as a way to expose the underbelly of classical music: struggling freelancers, sex and drugs. This show uses the basic premise of a young female oboist (Hailey, played by Lola Kirke) making her way in New York as a frame on which to hang improbable scenarios, a seventh-grader’s notion of what life in this business might be like. The conductor calls an audition! He hires Hailey on the spot! She messes up, so he makes her his assistant instead! This leads us, within a couple of episodes, to a fictional world with a strong similarity to “The Devil Wears Prada,” a film about a young woman at the whim of a mercurial boss. I’m sure that film didn’t have much to do with the real fashion world, either, but at least it felt like it was drawing on the insider’s view that was its model. “Mozart in the Jungle,” alas, like so many pop-culture representations of classical music, seems to think that when music enters the picture, normal standards don’t apply — in this case, basic research, or basic quality.
(10 episodes) begins streaming
Tuesday on Amazon.