Are movies about flawed musical conductors the critical equivalent of studio blockbusters about dinosaurs? Following last year’s Tár which starred Cate Blanchett as a conductor who worshipped at the altar of Leonard Bernstein, Bradley Cooper utterly transforms himself into Bernstein for Maestro. A true labor of love that finds Cooper giving everything creatively to capture the full scope of Bernstein as a talent, a husband, and out gay man, the film is inspiring, swelling with emotion, and rapturous. It’s also overwhelming, with Cooper attempting to take on so much that it doesn’t always stay in rhythm.
This isn’t a movie about Leonard Bernstein’s career so much as it is about his marriage to actress and socialite Felicia Montealegre, played with poise and grace by the always-wonderful Carey Mulligan. The first half of the film is the most interesting in the first half, shot in gorgeous black & white, with cinematographer Matthew Libatique sweeping us through the fairy tale courtship of Leonard and Felicia. He’s still a young, strapping American man who ran with his surprise shot to conduct the New York Philharmonic. The toast of the town ever since, Leonard doesn’t feel the need to hide his homosexuality; although at one point it’s suggested he hide his Jewish heritage with a name change. At this stage of his life, Bernstein is a livewire sparking every room he enters. It’s also at this time that he’s knocked off of his feet, surprisingly, by Felicia, who he meets at a party thrown by his sister (Sarah Silverman).
There’s a mad, zany rom-com energy to this part of the film, as Leonard and Felicia begin their unusual courtship. You can see how she captivates him and how she does the same for him. They jabber to one another non-stop; in a cute bonding scene they shit back-to-back in a park playing guessing games. They are as close to kindred spirits as two people can be. As for his sexuality, there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that his tastes are wide and varied; but his love for Felicia is never in doubt.
When Maestro goes blazing into full color, the bloom is off the rose, so to speak. It’s impossible not to pale underneath Bernstein’s shadow, and there’s some obvious resentment by Felicia for the stagnation of her own career to become a mother and caretaker. But the love between them remains, even as his ego has expanded and his workrate has increased exponentially, robbing him of some of the creative zeal of his earlier years. Inevitably, this takes a toll and when Felicia sets out for a life of her own again, Leonard loses control without her steady guidance. If anything, this is a film about the demands of creative genius, and the sacrifices it demands of everyone in their orbit. There are vast periods of depression that find Leonard depriving himself of the people who mean the most to him. This also deprives him of the joy needed to fuel the spark of creativity. Leonard’s indiscretions with younger men start to become a problem, his children begin hearing the whispers (Maya Hawke plays the eldest daughter most affected by these rumors), and Felicia lashes out in a rage that drives him nearly to the brink of despair.
Cooper bites off more than he can chew trying to encapsulate so much of Leonard Bernstein into a 2-hour movie. There are whole portions of his life that fall by the wayside, but also for Felicia who lived a full life, as well. Gone are their political activities which were such a huge part of their lives together. Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer navigate the complicated contours of Leonard and Felicia’s marriage with soft steps. We see the big blow-ups, feel the impact of major decisions, but not the little allowances that would eventually balloon into full-blown disasters.
A lot has been made by the Jewish community of Cooper’s decision to sport a large prosthetic nose to portray Bernstein. The composer’s family was okay with it, and in execution it’s less pronounced than it looks in still imagery. I was struck by the distinct change in voice, from the high-pitched younger Leonard to the gravelly, throaty tenor of the composer in his final years. Cooper’s resemblance to Bernstein is uncanny, as is the way he captures his movements and mannerisms. It’s undeniable the commitment Cooper has made to Maestro and to bringing Bernstein’s story to the screen with complete authenticity. The proof is an absolutely jaw-dropping tour de force scene in which Bernstein conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Ely Cathedral in London. Cooper, dripping with sweat and matching all of Bernstein’s strokes like a true master, studied for six years to get this moment exactly right with real musicians all in one sweeping shot.
When it’s over, Leonard rushes into the waiting arms of Felicia, leaving a sweaty stain on her satin blue dress. Maestro delves into some dark territory following this glorious highlight. Leonard could be a bastard at the best of times, but Cooper doesn’t seek to soften who he was just to make an easily palatable biopic. Some will complain that they don’t see enough from the making of “West Side Story” or of this musical or that one. But to Cooper it’s a lot less interesting to see how he made those musicals than it is to see the people and the relationships that inspired Bernstein to create those musicals. It’s that kind of uncompromising vision that Leonard Bernstein would’ve respected.
Maestro is in select theaters now before streaming to Netflix on December 20th.