'Bernstein's Wall' Review: A Bracing Documentary Captures How Leonard Bernstein Became the Superstar of American High Culture

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There was a time, in the middle of the 20th century, when the orchestra conductor was a shamanistic figure in American life. And during that era, no shaman was more magical — a higher priest of hig…
There was a time, in the middle of the 20th century, when the orchestra conductor was a shamanistic figure in American life. And during that era, no shaman was more magical — a higher priest of high culture — than Leonard Bernstein. To understand the pedestal he strode upon, you'd have to go back to the period when classical music was still at the center of things (in lavishly funded public-school programs, on FM radio, in the thriving professional orchestras that sprung up in nearly every major city in the land). You'd have to go back to the era before Bradley Cooper, coming off "A Star Is Born," couldn't get the backing for a Bernstein biopic that would play in movie theaters. (He's making it for Netflix instead.) Within that now vanishing world, the figure of the orchestra conductor loomed like some elevated rock-star version of Merlin crossed with P.T. Barnum, a mystic who would lead us all to the mountaintop of classical ecstasy.

He was almost like a one-man preview of the counterculture revolution: a lone figure in a tuxedo, solemn and lordly, holding his baton like a wand, his thick hair perfectly groomed. But as he conducted, and began to get all passionate and excited, something came erupting out of him. The hair would become unkempt (which was sexy). The sweat would form. A tempestuous fervor would emerge. Before our eyes, this civilized man, guiding the music and also under the spell of it, would be transformed. He would become…a longhair!

The whole idea of the conductor was one of the most riveting pieces of theater that Western art had ever come up with. His job, during a performance, was to lead the orchestra, to keep it perfectly timed and on track (though as anyone who has played in orchestras knows full well, a good one can run through almost any piece just fine without the conductor). His real job, though (the one that people paid to see), was the drama that's been parodied by everything from "Bugs Bunny" to Simon Helberg's luscious conductor…
Owen Gleiberman
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