Nylon Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bernadette Wegenstein
Writer: Bernadette Wegenstein, Stefan Fauland
Cast: Marin Alsop, Christanne de Bruijn, Benjamin Wainwright, Scott Turner Schofield, Seumas F. Sargent, Annet Malherbe
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/10/21
Opens: June 15, 2021

Even some feminists understand that few women should qualify as firefighters. Can they lift 300 pounds, the weight of the average American? That’s a job for men, for the most part. But a baton: how much does it weigh? Under a pound? Then there is every reason that a woman can do the job of conducting an orchestra as well as a man. Yet there are probably more female doormen in Manhattan than women who aspire to be orchestral conductors.

So along comes U.S. born Marin Alsop, determined to break the sound barrier. “The Conductor” is directed by Bernadette Wegenstein (yes, women get directing jobs), obviously a progressive, given that her doctoral degree from Vienna University is accomplished with a dissertation on the portrayal in the media of the ActUp movement. And in one of her films, “The Good Breast,” she criticizes the overuse of mastectomies.

Marin Alsop anchors the documentary, leading us in the audience to see how with determination she becomes the first woman to direct an American classical group of musicians, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She becomes a mentor to other women who dream of becoming conductors including one African-American man who notes that conducting has been his lifelong dream. I know that every kid dreams of being an astronaut, and even musical tots may want to be the next Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong, Artur Rubenstein or Glenn Gould. But conductor?

What does a conductor do anyway? In the film’s most incisive scene, Leonard Bernstein, the last century’s most gifted and versatile composer-conductor-pianist-lecturer, steps away from a rehearsing orchestra for a moment and asks: Do these people need a conductor? Aren’t they doing just fine without one? Sadly, the question is not really answered, so viewers may still think that conductors are little more than human metronomes.

Alsop is nothing if not cosmopolitan. She has spent eight years conducting in Sao Paulo, apparently picking up the Portuguese language, speaking German while she conducts the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Nor is she a snob that would not listen to anything not seriously classical, having directed an all-women’s swing band, playing such great hits as “In the Mood.” (If you like films about music, be sure to check out the 1953 movie of that title starring James Stewart.) This swing band brings me back to my days at Tufts when each year, Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston Pops, does renditions of such serious classical greats as “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

By way of instruction, she tells one young woman studying to be a conductor to be like the person who is suddenly confronted by an angry bear. No…don’t play dead. Bad advice. Instead make yourself as big as you can. There’s an attitude that happily many women, at least in the West, have taken to heart.

The soundtrack is as stirring as anything from the huge musical “In the Heights,” with more than just ten-second snippets from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s Fifth, Mahler’s Fifth, the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, some of Rimski-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. (Considering some of these picks, one wonders whether the folks making “The Conductor” have liquor on their minds.)

Where there’s music, there is hope for humanity. This optimism comes up near the conclusion, which makes one think that instead of selling assault rifles and fighter jets to our allies, we should just train them to make music, not war.

The film has been selected to play at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. In English with snippets of German and Portuguese, English subtitles.

90 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.