Maestro Movie Review | Cooper Does his Best Bernstein, But Mulligan Steals the Show

When Bradley Cooper’s Maestro made its debut at this year’s Venice festival, it landed not so much with banger or a whimper, but more of a light ripple. There were doubtlessly some good notices (and continue to be) but coverage of the Bernstein biopic and labor of love was quickly eclipsed by Golden Lion contenders like Yorgos Lanthinmos’ Poor Things or The Killer, David Fincher’s awaited return to the thriller genre. There were the inevitable, unflattering comparisons to Tár, Todd Field’s 2023 landmark about a fictional, problematic conductor. The allusions to that Oscar contender are probably a little unfair considering most films, let alone the ones with a similar subject matter, simply don’t compare.   

Diehard fans of Leonard Bernstein might be a little disappointed with the scope and focus of Cooper’s work here. Bernstein is arguably the single most-important American figure of classical music in the 20th Century. On top of that, he’s one of the iconoclasts of mid-century  musical theater. Any film about such a titan of the arts is contending with a legacy that is close to impossible to fully represent. Maestro does not dive headfirst into the artistic struggle of a generational genius, nor is it too concerned with the creative process itself. This might well irk a few anticipating its release.

If, however, you appreciate it for the work it is and not the one it isn’t, you have a rather good film on your hands. Instead, this is an admittedly ambitious if intimate portrayal of a deeply complex relationship. Cooper frames Bernstein’s life mostly through his rocky but undeniably loving marriage with Felicia (Carey Mulligan). It is as much her film as it is his. Some may take issue with the centering of a heterosexual marriage in a biographical work about a man who slept with men and was mostly likely gay. The facts, however, are not really favoring these hypothetical critics as any cursory glance at any memoir would reveal she was undeniably the most significant relationship of his life. 

Maestro’s early sequences, which document Bernstein’s initial rise as a conductor and his prolific period as a Broadway composer, really do have a dizzying sweep and dazzling sense of motion. This is best represented in an infamous sliding doors moment of his career, wherein an illness which befell the scheduled conductor of New York Philharmonic led to a debut and staggeringly successful baptism of fire.

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Cooper recreates the phone call and ensuing celebration in manner befitting the character’s sudden elation: His Bernstein marches authoritatively toward the camera which can only back away as if it can do nothing to halt the locomotive power of his vocational calling. The shot then culminates in an expansive wide as an empty Carnegie Hall, and by extension the world itself, appears to open up before our subject like a glorious exhalation of breath. A medley scene involving songs from On The Town is also an economic and enjoyably frenzied summation of some of his musical oeuvre.

Most attention, as mentioned, is given to that central relationship and Maestro lives or dies on this. To be fair to all involved, this is not the typical-wife-of-a-tortured genius setup we see in far too many stodgy efforts in this genre. Felicia is not someone who simply suffers after marrying a homosexual man, she is thankfully given more interiority than this. As much as it’s a film about the ways in which Bernstein’s sexuality was an obstacle to their marriage, so too is about the complications of two spouses with divergent career paths as performers.

Felicia Montealegre, or at least the figure presented to us by Cooper, is an accomplished theater actor but one who perhaps never reached heights someone of her talents deserved. Raising a family with an impossibly, exhaustingly busy musician meant the prospect of her becoming the household name on par with her husband was always remote. There is a genuine tragedy to this sacrifice being made for a man who perhaps never loved her the way she wanted. Consider an evocative shot which recalls German expressionist works: The domineering, gargantuan silhouette of a performing Bernstein does not just literally overshadow a Felicia watching from the sidelines but practically envelops and consumes her.

Carey Mulligan plays this all to a tee. For all the discourse around Cooper’s prosthetic nose and his transformation, it’s the English woman who steals the show. It’s a heartwarming irony, considering she is playing someone who lived her life on the relative margins, and one not lost on the actor I’m sure. Mulligan is nothing short of astounding, showing a powerful sense of control as a woman who must have felt she had very little in her own life. A remarkable moment occurs during a lunchtime confession when Felicia movingly realizes she wants Leonard back in his life after another set of indiscretion and indignities. We really feel like we are watching Mulligan having an epiphany in real time.

Cooper is stronger in the early sequences but can’t really escape the spectre of impersonation, especially as the film drags into its late second act. The commitment to nailing the voice is an odd decision. How many people alive could really tell you what he sounded like? So it’s more of a hindrance than an asset. And this thing can drag. Maestro does enter a comfortable malaise of ‘actory’ scenes where the visual splendor of the first act gives way to comfortable medium shots in well-decorated rooms.

The lengthy, much-publicized sequence of Bernstein performing Mahler’s Second Symphony does certainly breathe new life into the proceedings. Some may balk at the like-for-like imitation but there is undeniable joy to the way he reminds us it’s still all about the music.

Many will still say there is not enough of that music but this is a film about two people, not one. The brief, emotional climax which occurs after that performance is perhaps the film’s strongest moment and one in which Cooper manages to most successfully marry the two loves of Bernstein’s life; music and Felicia. Maestro is still a great endorsement of the idea that even the most unconventional of relationships can be some of the most loving, in their own way.

Maestro opens in cinemas today, and streams on Netflix from Wednesday, December 20th

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