(USA, 99 min.)
Dir. Ted Braun
I don’t usually start off a review with a quote but here’s one that’s hard to ignore. It’s from Anthony Tommasini, the recently retired and beloved critic in the New York Times: “A terrifically exciting conductor, Gustavo Dudamel has accomplished so much in his blazing career that it’s easy to forget he’s only 40.”
Some call him the Mick Jagger of classical music. Gustavo Dudamel is young, sexy and joyful, like Jagger was back in the boomer years. The Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Opera National de Paris and his own country’s iconic Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra–handsome, fit and stylish–Dudamel is a beloved figure throughout the world. Known for his exuberance and musicality, his performances are renowned for their dynamism and nearly overpowering sonic splendour.
In ¡Viva Maestro!, Ted Braun’s celebratory doc, the audience will be enmeshed in the glory that is Dudamel: his accessible demeanour, passion and charisma is on display constantly. If there’s a personal Dudamel, we never know about it; in fact, we rarely see his second wife, Maria, or Martin, his son from his first marriage. The great conductor’s private side is mainly revealed through his love and respect for José Antonio Abreu, the founder of the phenomenally successful Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and creator of the beloved El Sistema. Dudamel has inherited both the Bolivar symphony and El Sistema, conferring on him global respect for a teaching method that inspires children wherever it’s instituted in the world.
Braun’s upbeat film only has to negotiate one tough patch: the on-going political chaos in Venezeula. It took Dudamel many years to manifest a formal complaint against the corrupt and economically devastating regime of President Maduro, and that was a written piece in the Times. Wanting to keep El Sistema alive in his country, Dudamel is careful to criticize a dictator whom he might want to oppose in a direct manner. Dudamel’s dedication to music and art and education as the most important human values is made clear in the film, though it’s fair to question whether the most famous Venezuelan could do more for his country than he is doing.
What Dudamel does—and wonderfully well—is conduct. A trained violinist, Dudamel reads scores effortlessly and was personally taught by Abreu from his teens. He’s musically precise but what marks him as a star is his ability to communicate. “More like champagne, less like moonshine,” is what he declaims to a choir singing “Ode to Joy” in the film. And they laugh—and get it.
The most impressive parts of the film are when he implores his orchestra—and there are several—to perform to his high expectations. The film takes him and the Simon Bolivar on a tour of Berlin, Mexico City, Hamburg and Santiago, Chile, beautiful locations with imaginatively designed concert halls. Throughout, the globally beloved classics of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Shostakovich, and Mexican composer Arturo Márquez are performed.
Before he was 35, Dudamel was already lovingly parodied by Gael Garcia Bernal in the wonderful TV series Mozart in the Jungle. What else will happen for el Maestro in the future? Let’s hope he becomes President of Venezuela and turns it into a totally musical republic, with operas in the parks and string quartets on the streetcars. Maybe it can make money that way instead of through oil. In any case, for those who love classical music and art, ¡Viva Maestro! is a film for you.
¡Viva Maestro! is now in limited release.