Waves of joy, waves of sadness Review: MPT deserves a standing ovation for this richly evocative portrait of composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.

October 28, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I don't expect transcendence in a TV documentary.

Get the facts right, create an engaging narrative in which to present them, be honest with the audience, and connect a few dots that I might not have connected myself. Do that, and I'm happy.

So, I am delirious, enraptured and just plain cuckoo about "Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note," a two-hour film portrait of one of the great figures of postwar American life, airing on PBS tonight. "Reaching for the Note" has at least three moments of transcendence and each is from a different realm of Bernstein's fabulous musical career and troubled life.

The first is opening night of "West Side Story" in 1957. Bernstein wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, Arthur Laurents the book, with Jerome Robbins doing the choreography. Not a bad little lineup, and all are on film talking about the production and the magic Bernstein wrought with songs that still resonate through our lives today.

"By the time we came to New York, the word was out and it was bad for us," Laurents remembers. "This was art, and that opening night almost killed the show. They came in as if they were going to temple or church. I mean, they were afraid to react, and the show was dying until [the song] 'America.' That brought it to life."

Laurents is followed by a clip of the marvelous dancing in "America" from the MGM movie version of the play.

A few moments later, as the Broadway cast sings, "There's a place for us, a time and a place for us," we hear these words from Bernstein's diary in voice-over: "August 1957. This show is my baby. If it goes well in New York, we will have proved something big indeed and maybe changed the face of American musical theater."

From there, we come face-to-face with a photograph of Bernstein conducting the orchestra on opening night that I would pay a year's salary to own -- so evocative is it of a young man on the threshold of greatness. And all of that is merely prelude for actress Carol Lawrence, who played Maria as a teen-ager in the original cast, describing what she saw when the final curtain went back up and she looked into the eyes of the audience that night.

The second great moment comes just after Israel's Six Day War in 1967 when Bernstein took the Israel Philharmonic to Mount Scopus to play for the troops.

Yaacov Mishori, a member of the orchestra, recounts what it was like seeing the widows and wounded sitting on the mountainside listening. As we see still photographs and film of the concert, we hear Mishori saying, "For them, believe me, it was not just a concert."

And, then, there is Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" after giving them a tongue-lashing in rehearsal for not feeling the music as he felt it. As we hear the exquisite sounds of the performance Bernstein demanded, we hear another reading in voice-over from his diary: "His [Mahler's] music is so close to my heart the melancholy, the nostalgia for childhood, the innocence."

Producer-director Susan Lacy uses a number of prominent music critics to explain Bernstein, but you don't need them at moments like this when you feel Mahler in every fiber of your being.

I do have a few problems. Lacy is too tidy in trying to reconcile Bernstein's need for marriage and a traditional family with his homosexual relationships. The result is she tends to dismiss the relationships with men as unimportant. I also fault her for simply referring to Bernstein's "substance abuse" and not explaining and exploring it.

But, overall, this a brilliant film biography.

"He [Bernstein] used to look at you and you felt that when he is crying, you are also crying with your instrument," says Mishori. "When he's laughing and full of jokes, you are also. He broadcast waves, waves of energy to the players."

Perhaps, the greatest compliment I can pay "Reaching for the Note" is that it broadcast those same kinds of waves of sadness and great joy to this viewer.

Documentary What: "Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note"

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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