February 1970: American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s New York City, 1956. Louis Armstrong is playing with the New York Philharmonic. The crowd quiets as conductor Leonard Bernstein begins to speak, both men beaming down at everyone in front of them. 

Some of the archival footage in Douglas Tirola’s documentary about the maestro, “Bernstein’s Wall,” is grainy, including this shared moment between him and the famous trumpeter. But the joy radiating from Bernstein is clear and sharp as a bell.  After giving a rousing introduction for Armstrong – “What he does is real, and true, and honest, and simple, and even noble” – Bernstein’s next words waft over the music in voiceover. 

“It’s incredible, really, how deep a contact you can make through music, with people of all kinds of backgrounds and origins and ideologies,” he says. “What this kind of thing does costs so much less and produces so much more good results than any bit of propaganda you can think of. Music is uncluttered by any conceptual notions.” 

“Bernstein’s Wall” uses a combination of archival footage, interviews, and photos to chronicle the legendary conductor’s professional and political life, and how he wrestled with the power of art – along with own personal ability – to affect political and social change. What ensues is a thoughtful examination of arguably the most important musical figure of the 20th century, in his own words. 

From the film’s beginning, Bernstein wrestles with the idea of how the artist can affect change. It’s a question he asks of himself and us in different ways throughout the film, a thread we follow in the evolution of his life and career. He offers a short answer to that question quite quickly – yes, the artist can change the world, but not necessarily through their art. But, in Bernstein’s life, his political and professional growth run parallel. 

The maestro expressed his political stances seemingly without hesitation and often outside of his work, attending protests, raising money, and vocally supporting a number of progressive causes. From what the film shows us, he did not necessarily view art as a mechanism to change, but rather as a great equalizer – a bridge to understanding, the key to comprehending a fellow human being. And yet, despite Bernstein’s assertion that the artist doesn’t necessarily affect change through art itself, the film lends his devotion to teaching and sharing his work and the work of others as much time as it does his political action – and views it as nearly as radical. 

The film contextualizes Bernstein through his relationships – with his father, who he resented until he grew older; with his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, and his queerness; his relationship with his own Jewishness, which he refused to hide when somebody suggested he change his name for professional reasons; his relationship with the FBI, who investigated him throughout his life; and his relationship with the ever changing world around him. 

The question of whether or not he would be able to do some good in the world seems to have bothered him from a young age. In the documentary, he speaks about feeling inadequate to his country after he was turned down for World War II on account of his asthma. His desire to grow not just musically but politically extends from there. We see archival footage of him speaking at anti-Vietnam War protests, and listen to him discuss the famous “Radical Chic” essay that Tom Wolfe published in the aftermath of a gathering Bernstein and Montealegre threw at their home to raise money for the Black Panthers. 

And yet, though the film pays much attention to his activism and what causes he chose to devote himself to – and again, despite his own assertion that art is not necessarily the means by which to fix things – Bernstein’s music is still the driving force and, as he puts it, a weapon for peace. “The whole joy of conducting for me is that we breathe together,” he says, just one of many comments he makes about the universality of art, particularly music. 

Though Bernstein is probably best remembered for the likes of “West Side Story” or “On the Town” in popular culture, the film only briefly touches on those works. It spends more time on “Mass,” one of his more overtly political works that was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy and premiered at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. But more so than “Mass” or any of his other compositions, the film pays tribute to his conducting and his teaching. 

Bernstein threw himself into teaching in as radical a manner as he did politics. When he became the sole music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, CBS began broadcasting the orchestra’s “Young People’s Concerts,” putting Bernstein and his infectious love of sharing music right into people’s living rooms. While the entire documentary is fascinating, the moments where we are privy to Bernstein’s teachings are the most engaging. When he teaches, we don’t see pride or ego stand in the way – “If I’m wrong, then tell me,” he says sincerely to a young conductor before making a suggestion. There’s only a strong desire to share. 

The film lends as much importance to this aspect of Bernstein’s character as it does his political work, treating both with equal respect. The choice to do so conveys a slight pushback to Bernstein’s earlier assertion that the artist can change the world, but not necessarily through his art. While he may have certainly believed that and put his time and energy into other endeavors, he also staunchly believed in the power of music and art to connect. While it’s possible to view those two things as separate, the film chooses to view them in tandem with each other. Because the power of connection between two people may not have an effect on the world, but it certainly can have an effect on a person. The choice to view both of those levels of change – the universal and the personal – as equally important is key to the film, and maybe Bernstein’s, success. 

“Bernstein’s Wall,” a film by Douglas Tirola, will have its Atlanta premiere through the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Sept. 21 at the Byers Theatre at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. The event starts at 7:30 p.m., and is expected to include a performance from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, which provides minority, low-income youth with musical training. The City Springs Theatre Company, which is partnering with AJFF for the event, is also expected to provide a short, pre-film performance. The director, Douglas Tirola, is expected to participate in a Q&A. 

Tickets are available online. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.