"Maestro" Movie in Review - A Leonard Bernstein Biopic December 15 2023
Maestro is a biographical drama film directed by and starring Bradley Cooper as legendary American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Boasting impeccable technical merits from cinematography to production design, the film still falls into a common biopic trap of lacking emotional resonance even as it aims to capture a cultural giant.
Cooper spent six years diligently studying conducting to prepare for an extended scene of Bernstein leading Mahler’s epic “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral. This intense dedication clearly shines through in the final product, with the concert sequence emerging as one of Maestro’s indisputable highlights. The camerawork by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born) fluidly captures both intimate moments with soloists and the full grandeur of the orchestra and choir filling the cathedral’s resplendent nave.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Fantastic set with one of Bernstein's original conducting batons used by him, and 2 pencils that belonged to him and used for composition and corrections purposes.
Sweat dripping down his face as he energetically waves the baton, Bernstein loses himself in the transcendent music, exemplifying the profound joy conducting brought him. Watching Cooper inhabit his subject so completely in Bernstein's element makes you believe the lengthy preparation was worthwhile. The scene unfurls for over six minutes in an unbroken take, placing the viewer right amidst the action in thrilling fashion.
The top-notch technical execution extends through the decades as the film evolves its aesthetic along with the shifting time periods. Gorgeous technicolor cinematography bathes domestic scenes in the 1960s while creative transitions shepherd us between important moments. Cooper exhibits meticulous care towards accurately reproducing period details, from costumes down to Bernstein’s elaborate aging makeup.
Oscar-winning production designer Rick Heinrichs, editor Michelle Tesoro, and costume designer Mark Bridges all splendidly complement Libatique’s sterling camerawork. The film looks undeniably tremendous, especially for those able to experience it on the big screen before its imminent Netflix debut. You believe you have been transported back through time watching Maestro, a sterling technical achievement.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A fantastic take of Maestro Bernstein in performance at the piano
But like too many biopics enraptured with their subject’s larger-than-life persona rather than their intimate humanity, Maestro keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We witness the broad strokes of Bernstein's prestigious conducting career, his string of male lovers, and his troubled yet high-profile marriage to Felicia Montealegre without ever truly understanding the man inside. Real insights into what fueled his towering passions and contradictions prove scarce.
While buoyant chemistry emerges between Cooper and Carey Mulligan as his wife, neither performance ultimately digs beneath the surface. We see the outward complexity of Bernstein and Felicia's marriage arrangement as she tacitly accepts his affairs with men. But despite Mulligan’s sterling work, we only fleetingly gain glimpses into how this pained Felicia along with the all-consuming jealousy it could inspire. Their layers of affection clearly run deep, but the reasons why remain opaque.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A very young Leonard Bernstein
After Bernstein callously forgets an anniversary dinner, Felicia icily reminds him to “fix your hair, you’re getting sloppy.” This curt reprimand over catching her husband in a tryst briefly hints at years of buried hurt. But the script rarely allows Mulligan the runway to access Felicia’s profound well of heartache and resignation. Her character is sketched more vividly than most wife figures in composer biopics, yet still trapped standing in her famous husband’s shadow.
We receive similar faint glimpses of the real man when Matt Bomer briefly appears as Bernstein’s clarinetist ex-lover. They share a furtively tearful farewell on a Manhattan sidewalk, two lovers lamenting that timing and society prevents their relationship. It is a tender scene again limited by the film’s reluctance to shift focus away from Bernstein for long.
Trapped by the perceived mandate to cover a cultural giant's overflowing personal and professional feats, acclaimed screenwriters Cooper and Josh Singer (Spotlight) sacrifice insightful depth for breadth. We zip along with Bernstein enjoying rapturous professional highs and lows, jumping from era to era and location to location without establishing what powered such dizzying momentum. Iconic moments like conducting Mahler or proudly driving in a Jaguar convertible blasting R.E.M.’s ode “It’s the End of the World” showcase Bernstein’s hunger to live large. But rarely do we understand the creative fires, insecurities, and contradictions smoldering underneath the bravado.
[IMAGE] Page from a program signed by Bernstein showing him with his wife and children in 1956.
What does connect emerges chiefly through the musical performances, where we see past the self-mythologizing to behold the vulnerable artist inside. The unguarded joy radiating through Bernstein's face during concerts, the visible fulfillment music provides acting as a sanctuary from his conflicts...this reveals more than any number of speeches about his genius ever could. When wholly lost in conducting symphonies, his messy realities momentarily fade away.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Every generation apparently requires its own Leonard Bernstein biopic just as it needs fresh interpretations of familiar musicals West Side Story and On the Town. Maestro generally succeeds as loving tribute to an eternal New York icon, impeccably conjuring the eras that cradled him. Had Cooper peeled back the layers further on his subject’s anxieties and desires as he did playing tortured rock star Jackson Maine, this could have surpassed Martin Scorsese’s maestro of maestros cliché.
We receive an affectionate film likely to rake in below-the-line Oscar nominations before fading into the prestige biopic morass. The screenplay hits eminent career milestones Bernstein traversed without locating the man so desperate to be understood. It unwinds like a Wikipedia summary rather than Cooper or Singer’s deepest impressions of this conflicted legend. The sum lacks the courage of Leonard Bernstein’s convictions as it dutifully delivers Another Biopic 101.
If you only invest in one biographical film this season, choose Steven Spielberg’s intimate coming-of-age story The Fabelmans over Cooper’s sprawling Wikipedia entry. Within its accessible framework, that film locates universal truths about pursuing artistic dreams families struggle comprehending better than Maestro ever penetrates Bernstein’s enigmatic soul. We admire the legend’s achievements across times and continents without comprehending his essence.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] One of the Biographies of maestro Bernstein by John Briggs "Leonard Bernstein: The Man, His Work, and His World"
Cooper's direction displays masterful technical chops, from the camera’s liquid movements to seamless decade-hopping structure maintaining energy through a 40-year narrative. But for the story of an eternal showman like Lenny forcing the world to take notice, too much restraint and reservation seeps through.
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