The Conductor tells the story of Antonia Brico (Christiane de Bruijn). Before she was Brico, she was Wilhelmina or Willy, living in 1920s New York. Or at least, the film tries hard to convince its viewers of its 1920s New York setting. Even the American actors don’t sound American. Anyway, she works as a pianist at a drag bar. It’s typical, if not delightfully so, to show the past’s prurient side to prove that the early 20th century wasn’t just a time of repression and misogyny. Although Willy will experience a lot of that since bar work isn’t her endgame. She needs that money to get her into the New York Conservatory.
The woman who wanted to be the greatest conductor of all time will have her hurdles. One of those hurdles include that woman’s quasi-supportive adoptive mother (Annet Mahlerbe) breaking her piano apart to heat up an old-style stove. That’s right after the mother, whose name never comes up in the film, takes away her drag bar earnings as restitution for all the money she invested in her. She eventually gets out of dodge and moves in with her boss, who prefers to have his privacy.
The Conductor, sadly, takes a lot of contrivances before getting to Brico’s long road to victory. One of those detours is the storyline about discovering her real identity and tracking her nun aunt. This subplot makes this film longer than it has any business of it being. The film could have spent more time on connecting Brico’s struggle with larger historical events. It also relies on the cliché about genius coming from inner pain. In fairness, some of genius does come from pain and from family drama. But surely, viewers, at least smart ones, prefer watching geniuses at work.
Another sad thing about Brico that’s outside of The Conductor is that she, a trailblazer and glass ceiling breaker, just as a few paragraphs on her on Wikipedia. Surely, Maria Peters, the film’s director and writer, did more research outside of a few Google searches. But there’s an inescapable air of fan fiction here when it depicts her depression, as she sulks about bigger forces expecting her to fail. Half of the characters, the ones who aren’t mustache twirling misogynists, only exist here to give Brico pep talks.
Brico also discovers why her old boss needs his privacy, which has something to do with her misgendering one of the drag performers from her old work. It also turns out that her old boss, Robin Jones (Scott Turner Schofield) is a trans man. A film set in the 1920s, and eventually 1930s, will depict what’s politically correct then. But there’s something problematic about using a character’s gender identity as a plot revelation. That revelation also feels like it goes against the message of a film about people helping each other.