It is assumed from the start of “Bernstein’s Wall” that you’re well-aware of the 20th century’s preeminent classical music conductor, but if this is your first time hearing of Leonard Bernstein, he isn’t there to intimidate in spite of his fierce intellect and stentorian voice. As he was once welcomed into every American household with a TV as an early fixture of the medium, Bernstein leads with his humanity rather than his credentials in Douglas Tirola’s soul-stirring portrait, offered the chance to speak for himself from beyond the grave by virtue of a 25-hour interview conducted by his friend and journalist John Gruen in the 1970s. He made history leading the New York Philharmonic as its first American-born conductor at just 25, but Tirola truly considers Bernstein’s place in history as a part of what was later deemed the Greatest Generation even if he never felt could fully engage with it, taking mild umbrage at not being able to fight for his country in World War II due to his asthma and encouraged to change his last name to sound less Jewish if he wanted to have a career as a conductor.
No wonder then that Bernstein concludes plainly that besides Native Americans, there’s “no such thing as an American” and Tirola admirably engages with the conductor’s political passions as much as his music, seeing it as all being intertwined and a natural extension of having his gorgeously wrought compositions underscoring the twists and turns in his life. The film begins and ends in Berlin, tied to the arc of communism, which particularly bedeviled Bernstein with the rise of McCarthyism and the disillusionment of a never-ending war in Vietnam, dividing people when he sought so much to bring them together. He marvels to Mike Wallace that the best thing to come of his celebrity is being able to have others use his name for humanitarian causes, wincing in disgust when the “60 Minutes” host’s attempt at a gotcha is to bring up an infamous gathering of the Black Panthers he and his wife Felicia hosted, and while a few minutes later, he may be referring to chord progression when he’s talking about how notes only mean something when played next to each other, “Bernstein’s Wall,” never needs to describe what made the conductor so great when you get such a strong sense of how deeply cared about the world.
When Bernstein was first and foremost a showman who revived the NY Phil by taking breaks from the music to talk to the audience about what they were hearing, it is only natural that the all-archival doc dazzles with editor Zachary Obid’s cross-cuts and reverberates with the depth of his words, the sound reflecting the thought he put into them. Tirola goes so far as to give Bernstein a co-writer credit and while there’s obviously an intimacy in narrating one’s own life, Bernstein applies the clarity of mind and charisma that made his explanation of complex musical ideas so accessible to so many to examining his tortured relationship to a father he had great contempt for, a marriage he couldn’t give as much time as he would’ve liked (notably Felicia is the only other voice to gets any airtime in the film) and a career that had no natural path until he found his way onto TV. You may be delighted to learn any number of fun details throughout such as how “West Side Story” once had seder in it – before being shelved for six years, but capturing Bernstein in all his dimension is the true revelation of “Bernstein’s Wall” and despite its title doesn’t bring a feeling of closure so much as an excitement to go out and engage more.