The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gustavo Dudamel documentary paints an off-key yet transfixing portrait

‘¡Viva Maestro!’ follows the Venezuelan conductor at a moment of political turmoil in his homeland

Orchestra conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads a rehearsal in Mexico City in the documentary “¡Viva Maestro!” (Gustavo Dudamel Foundation/Gerardo Nava/Greenwich Entertainment)
(2.5 stars)

Gustavo Dudamel’s transfixing talent is obvious throughout the documentary “¡Viva Maestro!,” a compelling but incomplete look at the prodigious Venezuelan conductor. For all the gusto with which the floppy-haired virtuoso performs before a packed concert hall, Theodore Braun’s film captures Dudamel at his most astute during decidedly less glamorous rehearsals.

One example: an early sequence in which Dudamel, now 41, pushes his orchestra to hit the ubiquitous opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with precision and aplomb. “When he gives us instruction, he rarely says a technical thing like ‘shorter’ or ‘faster’ or ‘longer,’” one player says. “It’s always, ‘I want it to feel like this.’” That speaks to the immeasurable “it” factor that made Dudamel such a wunderkind, as he took the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when he was just 28 years old and helped inspire the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.”

“¡Viva Maestro!” follows Dudamel from 2017, as he prepares Venezuela’s renowned Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra for an international tour, through 2018, when he travels to Chile to conduct performances in honor of his late mentor, the music educator and activist José Antonio Abreu. But this seemingly conventional portrait has the opportunity to transform into something more nuanced when political and socioeconomic strife plunge Dudamel’s homeland into crisis.

Those in tune with the classical music world will know how that played out: Having long separated his artistic clout from his political views, Dudamel spoke out against the repressive regime of President Nicolás Maduro. In retaliation, Maduro’s government pulled the plug on tours of both the Bolívar orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and Dudamel found himself no longer welcome in his homeland.

Braun tries to hit the necessary notes as his film takes an unexpectedly timely turn, but their delivery is flat. Key context about Venezuela’s political discontent is skimmed over, and Dudamel himself has little to add beyond recitations of the views he has already shared on Facebook and in a New York Times op-ed. When Bolívar musicians give up their instruments and take to the streets, an illustration of the orchestra’s seating chart — with chairs fading away amid the attrition — makes for a powerful visual that gets frustratingly little follow-up. And the death of a teenage violist during a demonstration in Caracas is mentioned in puzzlingly brief fashion.

“¡Viva Maestro!” fares better in service of what one can only assume was its original intent: shining a light on Dudamel’s generational genius and his advocacy for music as an “essential human right,” especially among Venezuela’s youth. He’s particularly passionate about the value of El Sistema, the nationwide music education program founded by Abreu in 1975, and footage of Dudamel engaging with the next generation of musicians is inspiring.

While Dudamel’s personal life goes all but unaddressed, his connections with two former Bolívar players — who leave Venezuela’s unrest for the stability and musical promise of Berlin — offer insight into the empathetic man behind the flamboyant musician. In fact, their stories are so wrenching that one wishes Braun had broadened the scope to further focus on them and other Bolívar exiles.

But Dudamel does have a knack for seizing the spotlight, and this documentary is no exception. When Dudamel pontificates about music’s ability to unify communities and heal the soul, his voice comes through with pitch-perfect emotion. With such a mesmerizing star, one can forgive Braun’s film for being a shade off-key.

Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains brief images of violence. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 99 minutes.

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