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Mozart In The Jungle takes a trip to Rikers in an admirable, messy episode

(Screenshot: Amazon)
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“Not Yet Titled” is an ambitious episode for Mozart. Most obviously, it breaks from the usual visual style in attempting to show Bradford Sharp’s documentary about the symphony, a shaky cam attempt at verité. It’s a fun idea, not quite perfectly executed. There are too many questions at hand: For example, how many cameras are at Bradford’s disposal? (He gets a lot of different angles.) Are we watching the finished product? (He seems unsure of what he’s doing.) And, frankly, it’s hard to take Bradford seriously. He’s such a parody of a neurotic hipster and Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal doesn’t do him any favors. This becomes even more of a problem when you realize where the orchestra is playing their concert: Rikers Island. Stick through the end of the credits and you’ll realize that Mozart didn’t fake this. The crew really did film on Rikers, and they really did perform for the men of the Eric M. Taylor Center. The issue is a matter of tone. On one hand, this is an incredibly well-meaning half hour written by series co-creator Roman Coppola. But framing it as a film made by one of the show’s most annoying characters is an odd and unsavory choice.

(Screenshot: Amazon)

At the end of “Symphony Of Red Tape” Rodrigo said he has an idea of where they can set up shop. If you assumed, like I did, this had something to do with his meet-up with the bubble lady, you were wrong. Instead, Rodrigo has engineered an elaborate field trip with a social message at its core. How the perpetually disorganized Rodrigo actually puts this together is a mystery, and probably not one worth hand-wringing over. After all, the most intriguing part of ”Not Yet Titled” is not how they all get to Rikers, but what they play when they are there. They are there to perform pieces by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote when he was a POW during WWII. It’s an inspired choice for a concert at a prison, and, admittedly not having been aware of Messiaen, this functioned as a mini lesson for me. At one point, a woman—actually professor Suzanne Farrin—is interviewed about the ondes Martenot, a surreal-sounding instrument used in the composition. “I always imagined that I would play this instrument in a jail,” she says. “That is because it was borne out of such a utopic vision and then it’s the one sound that Messaiaen took with him when he went to prison.”

Messaiaen’s discordant, ethereal music is striking, and we spend a lot of time with it. For this reason, the focus during the numbers is not on the principal cast so much as the other, actual musicians on stage. Sometimes, however, the camera frustratingly cuts away to shots of grass or the sky. This, I guess, is Bradford’s attempt to be artistic, but it’s hackneyed. Unfortunately—mainly because of the dichotomy between the seriousness of the subject matter and the silliness of the structure—the whole episode is never as good as its groundwork, and can also at times feel a little trite. Just like the earnestness of the concert feels mismatched with Bradford’s self-involvement, the message about the power of music seems too simple, especially when Messaiaen’s work is so complicated. To truly deal with the harsh realities of life on Rikers is probably asking too much of this frequently goofy show, but I couldn’t help but feel that it irresponsibly glosses over the fact that this is a notorious institution with an abusive reputation. At one point, someone—I think Cynthia—makes a comment in voice over about the “weird beauty” of the fencing against the Manhattan skyline. Romanticizing the art is one thing; doing that to the place is quite another.

“Not Yet Titled” is ultimately just trying to do too much, leading to an installment that never reaches the heights it should. And, yet, it should definitely be commended for trying.


Stray Observations

  • I do think this episode is admirable in many ways. I just wish I liked it more.
  • This Flavorwire piece about how it all came together is well worth a read. Note that the Chelsea Symphony, members of which performed in the episode, is hoping to return to Rikers.
  • The split screen gimmick in the final piece was once again a touch that felt overwrought. Whether “Bradford” was behind this, or whether Coppola, who directed as well, thought it was a good idea, I don’t know.
  • I wish they had acknowledged upfront the “real” elements of the episode, including that they were interviewing actual inmates.

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