Bradley Cooper's much-feted drama about legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein proves an underwhelming exercise in by-the-book biographical drama.
For many, Leonard Bernstein is one of the greatest American composers. A conductor, pianist and the mind behind scores including West Side Story, he was an iconoclast beloved by millions, not least because he came to prominence just as televisions began to populate households across the country. For years Bernstein’s face was familiar, not just to the attendees of Carnegie Hall or his pupils, but to the people who watched him thousands of miles away.
His creativity was arguably matched only by his charisma; one only has to watch archival footage of Bernstein to understand what it was about him that people so adored. As such, it’s not hard to understand why a Bernstein biopic has been a long time coming. For years Martin Scorsese was interested in bringing the story behind the legend to life, before the film piqued the interest of Steven Spielberg, but now – with Scorsese’s blessing – the task has fallen to director/co-writer/producer/actor Bradley Cooper, continuing a theme he began with his much-lauded reimagining of A Star is Born.
Yet the opening of Maestro points to the importance of another person within Bernstein’s story: his wife, Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan). The actress met Bernstein through mutual friends in 1946, and the pair hit it off immediately. Although Cooper blasts through their courtship at lightning speed, this is where the film really shines: Felicia and Leonard’s early infatuation is portrayed as a romantic spectacle all of its own. Yet as time goes by, Felicia notices Leonard’s wandering eye (rather clumsily illustrated through a tap routine which brings to mind the much more seamless – and amusing – ‘No Dames’ scene from Hail, Caesar!) Felicia approaches the delicate situation with a progressive mindset; she doesn’t mind Leonard’s marital indiscretions, so long as he doesn’t embarrass her. Predictably this is something Bernstein fails at almost comically, swooning after much younger men who might as well be nameless for all they contribute to the story.
It feels as though Cooper faired better when telling a fictional story; he struggles to capture Bernstein with anything but the broadest strokes, and although he’s entertaining (the much-ballyhooed prosthetic nose really isn’t that distracting after all) the script itself doesn’t seem overly interested in giving a particularly revelatory look at Bernstein’s life. Even key moments – such as the composition of West Side Story and his revival of Mahler’s symphonies – are swept past with little fanfare.
Cooper makes attempts to temper the staid script with directorial flourishes. He shoots in black and white academy ratio until Bernstein and Felicia marry, at which point the film switches to colour. It’s a hackneyed shorthand for the entry of colour into Bernstein’s world, and not one that makes much sense; Bernstein does not seem to change much in the periods before and after meeting Felicia.
Meanwhile, Bernstein’s queerness feels a little sanitised. We see him in bed with a man at the film’s start, and there are a couple of references made to his queerness. With an optimistic eye it could be that Cooper is attempting to suggest Bernstein’s queerness was not central to his personhood, but this is a strange point to make considering he is such a beloved figure within the queer community, and his sexuality (along with Felicia’s reported tolerance of his escapades) is more progressive than the film makes it out to be.
At least there’s the music. The film sounds great, although it would be something of a crime if it didn’t. Bernstein’s own compositions fit alongside some of the pieces he adored with ease, and it’s a shame the film wasn’t shot entirely in the rich black and white that characterises its first act; the switch to colour dampens the impact, even with the great Matthew Libatique on DoP duties.
As Bernstein Cooper is on fine, charismatic form, and the film is perhaps his strongest campaign for an awards season run yet. By contrast, Carey Mulligan appears a strange choice for Felicia (not least because Felicia was half-Costa Rican). She is quite adequate but struggles to keep pace with Cooper, which means the couple never really appear as the dramatic dynamos the film wants us to buy them as.
It’s a shame, as there are promising elements of Maestro, but they form a rather forgettable, conventional biographical drama as a whole – one that sadly lacks Bernstein’s maverick spirit and warmth, or even captures anything about him you couldn’t glean from a quick skim read of Wikipedia. There’s no real sense of his passion, or what set him apart from his peers. One of the great jokes in Todd Field’s Tár is that Lydia Tár claimed to have been mentored by Bernstein; how is it that a single detail in a fiction could be more interesting and revealing than the entirety of Cooper’s long-gestating passion project?
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