Jake Gyllenhaal to Star in a Leonard Bernstein Biopic with a Twist

Cary Fukunaga will direct the unconventional treatment on the composer's life and work. 

Stronger Jake Gyllenhaal

Cary Fukunaga will direct the unconventional treatment on the composer’s life and work.

Most biopics suffer from being more stagnant and repetitive than they should be. By default, it’s easy to go into movies that are “based on true stories” with a list of well-worn expectations about their structure and the potential for Oscar-bait performances. Yet while many biopics merely function as actor catnip, some of these films do transcend the confines of their direct subject matter, proving that the genre still has plenty of potential for experimentation.

Perhaps an upcoming collaboration between Jake Gyllenhaal and director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) will be one such worthy biographical drama. Deadline reports that the two are working together on a film based on the life and art of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

The biopic, titled The American, will be adapted from the Humphrey Burton book “Leonard Bernstein.” With a screenplay written by Michael Mitnick (The Giver) that splits the story into five sections, The American will follow Bernstein’s rise to fame, covering his time with the New York Philharmonic. The movie will also likely track the gestation of some of Bernstein’s iconic musical compositions, such as his work on West Side Story and the film On the Waterfront. However, The American will also explore a dark side that plagued Bernstein amidst his many successes. He struggled to juggle his personal and public responsibilities, with Bernstein being his own worst critic.

Fukunaga is slated to direct The American while Gyllenhaal is set to star as Bernstein. Their highly lauded filmographies speak for themselves and I’m confident that they will deliver an engaging and even heartrending biopic. However, the intention to tell Bernstein’s story in five parts – movements not unlike those in a symphony itself — is particularly noteworthy. With all due respect to the ineffable talents of both Gyllenhaal and Fukunaga, this is where things start to get really interesting as it taps into the potential of the unconventional biopic.

Gyllenhaal and Fukunaga’s early commitment to creating a stylistically distinctive biopic takes the tried-and-true practice of recounting the history of a troubled artist in a fascinating direction. Already, expectations of what a biopic about such an icon would look like are out the window. Unconventional biopics are diamonds in the rough — movies that are dependent on individual directors who execute their respective visions. Thus, these films are exceptional and barely comparable to one another That’s not to say that conventional biopics don’t ever work, because solid efforts can be very impactful — look at Selma and Erin Brockovich as examples. But sometimes directors have more viscerally potent stories to tell that suits their stylistic decisions more effortlessly, and those make for the most powerful biographical films.

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is far from an expected period drama about a controversial historical figure. Instead, it unabashedly mashes up the past and present in a cheekily vibrant portrait of a young woman. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t just “the Facebook movie,” it is an unsettling case study that’s far more concerned about building up the enigma of Mark Zuckerberg than breaking him down into bite-size pieces for easy consumption. The fact that Loving Vincent is the first fully-painted animated feature film is a stunning achievement, literally combining the medium of film with Vincent van Gogh’s own legacy as a painter to stellar results.

There are many ways in which The American‘s five movements could interpret Bernstein’s legacy so long as they add up to form a cohesive whole at the very end. They may hint at a nonlinear timeline. In the interest of fitting everything into a two-hour film package, they could focus on just the most emotionally exhilarating as well as taxing snippets of Bernstein’s life, and especially take a look behind the scenes when the spotlight isn’t on him.

The possibilities are endless, though. Furthermore, Fukunaga himself has been experimental in the past (see Beasts of No Nation and its use of an unexpected color palette) and no doubt has some tricks up his sleeve to make this particular Bernstein movie memorable. And hopefully stand out against any competing films about the same subject.

In the tradition of dueling biopics, this news recalls theories that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake is in fact itself an unconventional biopic about Bernstein — deduced from the fact that Spielberg also held a table reading for a Bernstein biopic at the same time he’s searching for his West Side Story cast. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich has mentioned the idea on the Fighting in the War Room podcast, while Collider’s Matt Goldberg surmised that the filmmaker may just do a Bernstein film first or instead of the musical. Either way, we’re getting an extra dose of the famed composer’s work.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.