‘¡Viva Maestro!’ is a documentary portrait of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel
“¡Viva Maestro! follows Dudamel from 2017, as he prepares Venezuela’s famous Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra for an international tour, until 2018, when he travels to Chile to conduct performances in honor of his late mentor, the music teacher and activist José Antonio Abreu. But this seemingly conventional portrait has the opportunity to turn into something more nuanced when political and socio-economic strife plunges Dudamel’s homeland into crisis.
Those in tune with the world of classical music will know how it happened: having long separated his artistic influence from his political views, Dudamel spoke out against the repressive regime of President Nicolás Maduro. In retaliation, Maduro’s government ended the tours of the Bolívar Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and Dudamel found himself no longer welcome in his native country.
Braun tries to hit the necessary notes as his film takes an unexpected turn, but their delivery is flat. The key context of Venezuela’s political discontent is skimmed over, and Dudamel himself has little to add beyond accounts of the opinions he has already shared on Facebook and in a New York Times op-ed. When Bolívar’s musicians abandon their instruments and take to the streets, an illustration of the orchestra’s seating plan — with chairs fading amidst the attrition — makes for a powerful visual that gets frustratingly little follow-through. And the death of a teenage violist during a demonstration in Caracas is mentioned in a curiously brief way.
“¡Viva Maestro! fares better in service to what one can only assume to be its original intent: to shine a light on Dudamel’s generational genius and his advocacy of music as a “basic human right”, especially among the Venezuelan youth. He is particularly passionate about the value of El Sistema, the national music education program founded by Abreu in 1975, and the images of Dudamel engaging with the next generation of musicians are inspiring.
While Dudamel’s personal life remains virtually unanswered, his relationships with two former Bolívar players – who leave troubled Venezuela for stability and musical promise in Berlin – offer insight into the empathetic man behind the flamboyant musician. In fact, their stories are so heartbreaking that one wishes Braun had expanded the scope to focus more on them and other Bolivar exiles.
But Dudamel has a knack for grabbing the spotlight, and this documentary is no exception. When Dudamel pontificates on the ability of music to unite communities and heal the soul, his voice speaks with perfect emotion. With such a compelling star, Braun’s film can be forgiven for being a little off-key.
Not rated. At the Bethesda Row Cinema in Landmark. Contains brief images of violence. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 99 minutes.