In last year’s conductor-focused, brilliantly layered New York Film Festival selection, TÁR, Todd Field depicts an interaction between maestro Lydia Tár and a possible conquest after she gives a speech at The New Yorker Festival. In a clever moment of innuendo and flirtation, Tár and the interested young woman discuss the physical toll of being up on a podium leading an orchestra. After being asked if she ever feels overwhelmed by emotion while conducting, Tár states, “It can take hours to return to ‘normal.’ You say things after that others remember but that you won’t.” That emotional and physical experience and the impossible attempt to live a normal life as a gifted musician is precisely what Bradley Cooper illustrates and elaborates upon in his beautiful second directorial effort, Maestro. It’s a film bursting at the seams with emotion and creative flourishes, making it a fitting portrait of conductor-composer-teacher-provocateur Leonard Bernstein.
Maestro opens with a clever camera trick deployed in key scenes throughout the film. An elderly “Lenny” (a terrific Cooper) sits behind a piano. As the camera moves around the corner, we see he isn’t alone. A camera crew is observing and filming him. Can a polymath like Bernstein ever rest? Are his rare (and often resisted) moments of solitude forever to be filled and haunted by people interested in accessing just a sliver of his genius? In this scene, though, Bernstein specifically recalls being haunted by the ghost of a person he misses dearly, his late wife, Felicia Montealegre (a heartbreaking Carey Mulligan). Like the camera crew in the scene, Cooper is undoubtedly interested in accessing that sliver of Bernstein’s genius. Still, he seems even more inspired by the life of Felicia and the people in Bernstein’s orbit who were affected by his particular blend of selfishness and restlessness. The aging Bernstein tells the crew that he sees her ghost, and his children wish they could see her, too. It’s a painful and poignant introduction to the woman who becomes the story’s centerpiece while also slyly dropping a thread referenced throughout: Bernstein’s perception of the jealousy that others have for him.
We jump back to the bright and sparkling early days, before the world truly knew the multi-hyphenate genius, and a young Lenny wakes up to a phone call that will change his life forever. Bruno Volter, conductor of The New York Philharmonic, has fallen ill, and a last-minute replacement is needed that night at Carnegie Hall. There is no time to rehearse, not a moment to mentally prepare, but Lenny is far from bothered. He has a magnetism and a joie-de-vivre that Cooper’s confident, frenetic camerawork beautifully matches. Bernstein grew up in the 1920s when silent films, broadcast radio, and American music (e.g., Jazz, Big Band) were all booming. The film’s early scenes are captured in black and white by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and visually and sonically connect to those trends that influenced Bernstein’s musical ideas. As he friskily acts like he’s playing the bongos on the butt of a man in his bed, the question isn’t “Is Lenny ready to conduct at the last minute?” But instead, “Is the world ready to be introduced to Leonard Bernstein?”
Ready or not, Felicia meets Lenny one night when he is sitting behind a piano at a party filled with other artists and luminaries. Their first meeting is incredibly romantic, as it becomes clear that they both understand each other almost instantly. The world may want them only to be one thing, as Lenny declares, but they find comfort in each other’s varied passions and pursuits. Felicia is an actress and introduces Lenny to her world when she takes him to an empty theater to rehearse a scene with her. “You’re the King, but you’re quite taken with me,” she states, giving him a quick primer on her play. Not only is this an apt description of the scene they read together (Felicia perfectly, Lenny terribly), but it also succinctly describes how the world will come to know them as a pair. The ways Cooper and Libatique frame the conversations between Lenny and Felicia are incredibly thoughtful, oscillating between dreamy close-ups at the dawn of their courtship and distant long shots to preserve their privacy during difficult conversations later in their marriage.
Mulligan plays Felicia to perfection, delivering the best performance of her career. Being married to Leonard Bernstein as his career begins to flourish is no easy task, and Mulligan imbues Felicia with courage and vulnerability throughout the trials of their marriage. There is a particularly sad moment early in their relationship when Lenny and Felicia run into one of his paramours, David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Cooper keeps the camera on the faces of David and Felicia in close-up while we hear Lenny rambling an introduction between the two of them to fill the silence. David and Felicia instantly know who they are to each other, but it’s suddenly less clear who they really are to Lenny. Everyone fell in love with Lenny, and he was addicted to that love and attention. Cooper touches on Bernstein’s fluid sexuality, but instead of sharing elaborate details of his dalliances, he focuses on Felicia’s response to his growing boldness and carelessness in his infidelity. Much like in his directorial debut, A Star is Born, Cooper is fascinated by the shifting power dynamics in romantic relationships between two artists, especially as one star shines and the other begins to dim. With Maestro, Cooper is far more successful in ceding most of the narrative to the woman at the center of it all. While the film is still very much a story about Bernstein and his ability to reconcile his hedonistic lifestyle with his partnership with Felicia, it also makes space for her emotional and physical pain.
Maestro finds Cooper even more confident and self-assured behind the camera. As the pair grows older and the sparkling black and white visuals fade in favor of a more realistic color palette, Cooper creatively stages the struggles in their domestic life. Where he places the camera depends on how Felicia or his children feel based on his actions. In moments of rage, Mulligan’s layered heartbreak is captured in close-up. Sometimes, Cooper will keep the pair at a distance from us, filling the periphery with the home they’ve created together to remind us of their past. He also incorporates an uncomfortable, wide two-shot that forces the audience to witness a brutal argument and the deterioration of what was once a charming, romantic affair. In one of the most telling moments of the film, Lenny has a conversation with his daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) regarding some of the rumors she’s been hearing about his affairs. She’s embarrassed, and instead of being honest with her, he lies and blames it all on the jealousy that others have had for him since childhood. The camera lingers, not shying away from the hurt that he caused through his selfishness and ability to charm and convince.
Cooper’s most exciting work, though, is found in the musical moments showcasing Bernstein’s role as a conductor and composer. First, he includes a cinematic dream ballet inspired by Fancy Free, where we see a young Lenny as one of the dancing sailors. The scene smartly connects Bernstein’s personal life to his music, as his interest in the other men in the frame is palpable. Later, in one of the most moving scenes of the year so far, Bernstein conducts a performance of “Resurrection,” a section of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Ely Cathedral. It’s rapturous and begs to be witnessed in a theater with a crowd. Not only is this a bravura filmmaking showcase, but it also perfectly illustrates why Bernstein is unable to come down from a performance like that. How could you face the moments of quiet in life after conducting Mahler? It’s suddenly clear why he wants to surround himself with people and why being alone sends him into a deep depression. Viewers may find Cooper’s performance over-the-top, but in reality, he accurately plays a character who takes up a lot of space in the world. Much has already been said about the makeup and prosthetics in the film, but Kazu Hiro’s (Darkest Hour, Bombshell) work makes Cooper’s Bernstein feel like both a reconstruction and a real person. The convincing prosthetic work doesn’t weigh down the performance.
The script, penned by Cooper and Josh Singer, deftly incorporates details of Bernstein’s life via exposition. As time passes, we hear radio broadcasts and witness interviews where hosts and journalists fill in the gaps by detailing Bernstein’s accomplishments and rising star status. Paired with his direction, Cooper keeps and manages time the way a conductor would. While this allows Cooper to focus on the relationship between Lenny and Felicia, it can frustrate viewers who want the film to delve more deeply into some of Bernstein’s most significant musical accomplishments. For example, his work composing West Side Story is left to a quick yet clever needle drop at their Connecticut summer home; the popularization of Mahler via Bernstein’s 1960s recordings is not discussed. Personally, I did lament the absence of an expected sequence of Bernstein’s work as a teacher throughout his televised Young People’s Concerts. Yet, this creative choice also stops the film from falling into the “cradle-to-grave” or “greatest hits” biopic treatments that have lately clogged the prestige drama offerings. Instead, Maestro feels true to its subject’s flamboyance and the environment that he inhabited. There is a musicality to the dialogue where one could easily imagine that this is precisely how Lenny and Felicia’s circle of people would’ve spoken. It’s rich and detailed, captured in long takes of conversations and in crosstalk between friends and the Bernstein kids, Jamie, Alexander (Alessandro Nivola), and Nina (Alexa Swinton), at parties and holiday celebrations. Sometimes, the script feels like it’s biting off more than it can chew and it’s understandable given the breadth and magnificence of its subject matter. Yet, it can be challenging to settle into as it weaves in and out of musical moments and more staid domestic disagreements. The aforementioned scenes where we see Bernstein’s mastery of his work leave you on such a high that it can be difficult for the relationship drama to measure up. However, this is how Bernstein seemed to feel about his own existence.
That existence was a beautiful one, yet also filled with contradictions. Bernstein conducted Mahler and produced hit musicals like West Side Story and On The Town. He was unfaithful to his wife, yet loved her deeply. He was often disappointed and depressed amidst tremendous personal success. Cooper doesn’t answer the questions that the film poses, though, and instead blurs Bernstein’s multiple public and private lives, creating an experience far from a standard biopic. We don’t see a collection of the greatest hits when we reflect on our lives. Instead, we remember those specific memories of joy and suffering that made us feel the most alive. Bernstein wanted to share his life and his music with the world. Others will always remember details of our lives that we’ve forgotten, but our selected personal stories and memories are the greatest indicators of a full life. With Maestro, Cooper manages to do just that for Bernstein and shines a light on the most human aspects of a legend’s existence.
This review is from the 2023 New York Film Festival. Maestro releases in select theaters on November 22 and then on Netflix December 20.
Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix