Not since the late Leonard Bernstein has a conductor captured the imagination of the American public quite like Gustavo Dudamel.
The Venezuelan-born phenom with the flashing baton and flying curls has been featured on 60 Minutes, profiled in The New Yorker, inspired a TV series (Mozart in the Jungle), and even been animated on The Simpsons (the surest sign of broad cultural penetration). The music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director of the Paris Opera is the subject of a new documentary, ¡Viva Maestro!, opening today in New York (Film Forum) and L.A. (The Landmark Westside Pavilion).
“This is a very, very rare cat — very, very special musician,” declares director Ted Braun. “It’s the quality of his music-making and that emotional vitality and transparency that he brings. It’s just a magnet for musicians all over the world, from every walk of life and every genre and stripe and that then gets bounced out to audiences. He’s exceptional that way. I think Bernstein is absolutely the last figure to have that kind of reach and range of popularity.”
The documentary captures Dudamel’s extraordinary ability to communicate musical ideas to an orchestra, be it the L.A. Phil, the Simón Bolívar Symphony in his native Venezuela, or to young classical musicians around the world. His explanation, for instance, of what Beethoven is going for in the 5th and 9th symphonies becomes so clear and compelling that even a non-musician can absorb it.
“He has the capacity to express a feeling, a kind of target, an emotional bullseye… for the musicians, and to express that in a way that cuts through all the technicalities and really reaches any listener,” Braun observes. “There’s a wonderful moment in the film where he’s trying to get the chorus in Beethoven’s 9th to have a little more life and sparkle. He says, ‘It needs to be more like champagne and less like moonshine,’ and that analogy just snaps anyone to life.”
Braun came to the project not only with extensive experience as a writer-director of award-winning documentaries, but as a musician himself who has played in an orchestra. His most recent feature docs, Darfur Now (2007) and Betting on Zero (2016), tackled political and economic subject matter; ¡Viva Maestro! – when it got underway in 2016 – may have seemed to offer a clear thematic departure. But then, as the political situation deteriorated in Venezuela, Dudamel found himself increasingly drawn into the maelstrom.
Not long into filming in 2017, demonstrations broke out against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Over 100 people were killed, some by authorities and others by pro-government paramilitary groups. The film quotes from a New York Times Op-ed Dudamel published in July 2017 in which he wrote, “My country is living through dark and complicated times, following a dangerous path that may lead us inevitably to the betrayal of our deepest national traditions.”
In response, as the film shows, the Maduro government canceled a tour of Asia by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which Dudamel led, and a U.S. tour for the Venezuela Youth Orchestra. The retaliation was devastating for Dudamel, not only because of his emotional connection to his country, but also his commitment to young musicians. He himself is famously a product of El Sistema, the extraordinarily successful system of youth musical education established by Dudamel’s mentor, Maestro José Antonio Abreu.
The rapidly-shifting political environment caused Braun and his filmmaking team to scratch various shoots.
“It was a huge challenge because we had intended to return to Venezuela several more times to continue our exploration of his relationship with the [Simón Bolívar Symphony] Orchestra and to take a sort of present tense journey with him back to where he came from and how he got to be the person he is,” Braun tells Deadline. “That intention was completely disrupted by the street violence — 100 days of protests and the consequences, for Gustavo, of not being able to return [to Venezuela].”
The political tensions become a percussive element to the documentary; in symphonic terms, it’s like a recurring motif within the overall piece. But the primary theme is to explore an artist dedicated to bringing beauty into the world, a conductor who believes in the healing and unifying capacity of music. Dudamel’s work is not “non-political” – it ushers us collectively toward a transcendent plane, a harmonic and radiant one.
In story terms, Braun says, the task was “staying with the drive of our main character in much the way that, when you’re writing a screenplay, you sort of follow the drive of your main character. That’s how we navigated our way… from a conceptual point of view.”
¡Viva Maestro! is a release from Greenwich Entertainment and Participant, an Escape Artists and Center of Gravity production. Producers are Braun, Steve Tisch, Dean Schramm, Howard Bragman, and Nicholas Paine. Executive producers are Jeff Skoll and the late Diane Weyermann. Cinematographers are Buddy Squires and Richard Pearce. Kate Amend edited the film.
The documentary will expand next week to theaters in Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco (it’s set for VOD release on Amazon and Apple TV on May 24).
“I had never expected that we would have to wait two years through a pandemic to have this reach audiences,” Braun says. “On a very basic level, we were making a film that we believe celebrated the value of coming together and experience art and the film’s about that communal value of music making. But I think there is also communal value in theatergoing and and this is a film that’s really meant to be experienced in a theater. It’s got beautiful, beautiful theatrical sound.”
Adds the director, “I hope audiences seeing this film feel that through Gustavo — the communal and knitting together that can come from great music and great film. We live in a very fractious time and have suffered as a planet through the pandemic and through political and social upheaval in the last several years, and to come together for 90 minutes and be reminded of our shared humanity and our shared belonging to one another, I think is of real value. And I hope people that get to the theater leave with that feeling. Gustavo’s a brilliant, expressive, articulate spokesman for that.”