“Maestro does not manage to avoid the pitfalls of the genre despite its unconventionality in what parts of Bernstein’s life it chooses to depict, but it is a lush and solid second effort by Cooper.”
On April 14th, 1943, a star was born. At the tender age of twenty-five Leonard Bernstein, Lenny to his friends, was asked to step in for guest conductor Walter Bruno at the New York Philharmonic after Bruno came down with the flu. Bernstein was an overnight success and would go on to become the first world-renowned American conductor, as well as a much lauded composer for works as varied as the musical West Side Story, the score for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and various classical symphonies.
None of this is the focus of Bradley Cooper’s second film Maestro though, although moments surrounding some of these works are part of its narrative. Maestro‘s centre of gravity lies squarely in Bernstein’s private life, in particular with his lifelong marriage to Felicia Montealegre, despite Bernstein being bisexual and having several affairs with both men and women (Maestro chooses to leave out the women). The film opens with a quote by the maestro himself: “A work of art does not answer questions: it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between their contradictory answers.” The main question Cooper seems to want to provoke with Maestro is the ‘why’ of Leonard and Felicia’s marriage working despite the obstacles in its way, from his philandering to his ego provoked by his musical genius. It is hard to pinpoint a definitive answer beyond the banal ‘love and understanding’, but maybe that is all there is to it; and as the quote states: it is not about the answers.
Leonard (Cooper himself, with the most talked-about prosthetic nose since Nicole Kidman donned one in The Hours; the nose is totally irrelevant) and Felicia (a luminous Carey Mulligan) are introduced at a party thrown by Leonard’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman). Despite the fact that the film had already established that Bernstein had gay relationships, the pair fall in love and marry. They have three children (played by Maya Hawke, Sam Nivola, and Alexa Swinton), and for a time they seem to have the ideal marriage, even if Felicia’s career as a stage actress is put on the back burner in lieu of Leonard’s career. Discretion is key when it comes to his affairs with men, but as time goes on his infidelities invade the sacred space of their relationship, a source of strong discontent on Felicia’s part. Yet the marriage endures the storms, and when Felicia is diagnosed with cancer her husband puts his career to the side to be with the love of his life until the end.
Cooper directs Maestro to within an inch of its life; a lot of the compositions are gorgeous to behold but bereft of any meaning, the most notable exception being a shot of Mulligan in the wings of a theatre, the shadow of a conducting Leonard Bernstein enveloping her. It is an interesting visual metaphor for their marriage, with Bernstein’s career looming large over Felicia. She shows herself not to be a meek mouse though, taking her husband to task in a big verbal altercation one Thanksgiving, the culmination of a series of indiscretions on his part. The film’s strongest and most emotional moments are in the final 30-odd minutes, where Mulligan runs away with the film once Felicia starts to suffer through cancer treatments. There’s a funny scene early in the film when Felicia lures Leonard onto a theatre stage at night. As she prods him to rehearse her lines with her, he admits he is not a very good actor. The same cannot be said about Cooper, but Felicia being a better actor than Leonard is somewhat reflected in the on-screen pairing of Cooper and Mulligan, the latter stealing most of their scenes together. Which isn’t to say Cooper is bad, although he is more convincing as the older version of his character than the 25-year-old Bernstein who makes Felicia fall in love with him.
Those earlier years are scattershot, a jumbled mess of staged production numbers and rapid back-and-forths between the two principal actors. Cooper renders the courtship and the early years of marriage in a high contrast black-and-white; once the film switches to colour it’s hard to discern why it actually does so. The most conventional explanation would be Felicia casting off her blinders and accepting her husband’s sexuality, but the younger Bernstein isn’t exactly shy in showing his affection towards men and the film doesn’t explicitly show Felicia turning a blind eye. As the film reaches the rockier parts of the marriage Maestro steadies itself and Cooper gets a better grip on the proceedings, building towards an impressive single shot of Bernstein’s famous performance with the London Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s 2nd, the conductor throwing every fibre of his body into it. Cooper’s tendency to over-direct is evident throughout the film, to mixed results, but when it clicks it works wonders.
A film about Leonard Bernstein without his music would be a grave insolence, so of course a lot of his major works are there. They are not always used in the most fitting way, at times having an overbearing hold on scenes, but there is something magical in Bernstein’s genius pumping through the speakers of a large movie theater. The artistry behind the scenes is as one expects from a high-profile project like this: the production design is slick, the makeup work high quality whether you agree with the nose or not; Bernstein’s old and wrinkled face makes you almost forget Bradley Cooper is underneath it. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is visually arresting if not very surprising, and the film’s costume design is impeccable.
Maestro‘s narrow focus is a bold choice on Cooper’s part, and despite a shaky start the film captures the relationship at its core. It tends to verbalize the issues that result from Bernstein’s music drowning out his personal life and relationships, but fares much better with the strain Bernstein’s extramarital affairs put on the marriage; a simple glance, a well-placed edit, or an effective mise-en-scene tell more than any bit of dialogue can do. Maestro does not manage to avoid the pitfalls of the genre despite its unconventionality in what parts of Bernstein’s life it chooses to depict, but it is a lush and solid second effort by Cooper, and paradoxically a step forward from the broader and less refined but more accessible A Star Is Born, a film that also examined the creation of art as a roadblock for a successful love life. Maestro is far from perfect but shows a knack on Cooper’s part for staging a scene and wonderfully underplays its emotions in a dramatic final third that has the film ending on a high note.