Photo credit: Amazon Studios
Jason Schwartzman remembers the way he regarded classical music when he was a kid—as something of a rarefied thing, a highbrow art form for tuxedo-filled concert halls. He saw conductors coaxing music out of serious-looking players that only an audience more than ordinary could appreciate.
Mozart in the Jungle, the TV show (originally inspired by a memoir of the same name by oboist-turned-journalist Blair Tindall) about a fictional New York orchestra, which Schwartzman co-created for Amazon Studios, represents an attempt to convince viewers how short-sighted such notions are.
The show, which returned to Amazon’s subscription streaming service for its sophomore season on December 30, presents its collection of musicians as an amalgam of overachievers, perfectionists, back-stabbers and heart-on-sleeve-wearing, fantastically talented Everymen. They fight, fall in and out of love, in and out of beds, smoke pot and pursue their side hustles. And every now and then, they come together for the sublime performance of a masterwork led by their rapscallion conductor Rodrigo, who implores them all to “Play with blood!” and whose accent means he routinely addresses oboe player Hailey as “High-ligh.”
Mozart returns with a bit of wind at its back, having been nominated for two Golden Globes (Best Television Series Comedy, and Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series Comedy). Especially rewarding to Schwartzman and the rest of the show’s creative team, which includes co-creators and fellow executive producers Roman Coppola and Paul Weitz, is the response from real-world classical musicians, some of whom wanted to be part of the action this season.
Among those with screen time in the new 10-episode season are Gustavo Dudamel, the violinist, acclaimed conductor and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music and artistic director; concert pianist Lang Lang; Grammy-winning classical pianist Emanuel Ax; New York Philharmonic music director and acclaimed conductor/violinist Alan Gilbert; and opera composer and conductor Anton Coppola, with violinist/conductor Joshua Bell also returning this season.
Schwartzman tells Paste the interest from all these different corners was a gratifying response.
“A lot of people reached out to us this year,” said the actor and indie musician. Schwartzman appeared in season one himself as a music podcaster with the low intonation of an NPR host. (This season, he tries his hand at directing an episode.)
“I think they see the show’s heart is in the right place. One major thing Gael [García Bernal] brings to the Rodrigo character is this idea of ‘playing with blood,’ the idea that it’s a living, breathing and vital art form with more or less crazy people practicing it.”
The art form certainly permeates Schwartzman’s family tree. His grandfather Carmine Coppola, for example, was a flautist in Toscanini’s orchestra. Another of his relatives, Anton, plays oboe and actually got a part written for him this season.
Schwartzman also recalls how his mother’s oldest friend was a musician hired by Leonard Bernstein to join the New York Philharmonic in the ‘60s.
“Growing up, I wasn’t really paying attention [to classical music],” Schwartzman says. “My mom loves, well, music theatre, really. We’d go see a classical music performance, but there’s a sheen. Everyone is in tuxedos. All the people who go there are sucking on cherry cough drops. There’s a kind of fanciness about it. Maybe, too, because my mom would be like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to put on a blazer now.’
Schwartzman was more taken in by a 1984 biopic that brought the classical music world to life for him, and many others.
“Not to compare our show to Amadeus, but I remember being little and that movie kind of blowing my mind,” he says. “It was the first time history felt real—like, Mozart was a real person. He was a living, breathing person.”
He goes on to compare that experience to his time with Mozart in the Jungle, the book. “In a weird way, Blair’s book was like my gateway into this world, making it seem a bit more relatable, at least to me.”
The show is inspired by the text, but departs from it as well, and it goes to new places in the upcoming season, both literally and figuratively.
The scope expands to locales like L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl and Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. Where the story is concerned, Rodrigo saw his debut as the orchestra maestro in season one, though the bloom is now somewhat off that rose. Hailey Rutledge, played with vulnerability and charm by Lola Kirke, was also something of an ingenue last season, and is now struggling to come into her own as a musician and in her love life as well. Also hovering in the background is an upcoming Latin America tour, a possible labor strike and negotiations between the musicians and orchestra executives searching for a path to financial sustainability.
Kirke says she found common cause with her character, as an actor competing for parts in the same way that the musicians on the show are competing in an industry where it’s tough to stand out—where status is hard-won.
“I’d never seen anything like this show before,” says Kirke, whose older sister Jemima is one of the stars of HBO’s Girls.
Amazon has certainly made it clear that originality has been its North Star for content, as it competes with outlets like Netflix. The idea is, always, to give people compelling, binge-able drama with characters and stories that don’t stick to a formula—character that are memorable, because they don’t do the expected thing.
Schwartzman & Co. believe they’ve done that with Mozart in the Jungle. At the very least, season two marks the return of a drama filled with a new sound of music—the kind that aims to inspire in viewers whatever the digital version is of standing in an auditorium, waving a handkerchief and applauding as the guy on stage with a baton takes a bow.