Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan profile composer Leonard Bernstein and his complicated marriage to actress Felicia Montealgre in the former’s new film for Netflix.
Actor Bradley Cooper surprised everyone upon the announcement that he would be starting in as well as writing and directing a modernized remake of A Star Is Born in 2018, only to blow away his skeptics with a powerful and beautifully composed feature that earned eight Academy Award nominations. Cooper’s sophomore feature arrives in the form of a biopic about the life and career of prolific conductor Leonard Bernstein appropriately titled Maestro, which isn’t as prodding as his debut, but the film is still a solid entry into his growing filmography for its gorgeous visual palette and amazing performances from himself and co-star Carey Mulligan.
Maestro begins with an aged Bernstein (played by Cooper in full makeup) professing his longing for his wife Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Mulligan) to a documentary crew making a film about the iconic musician before flashing back to the big break that propelled him to stateside stardom: his 1943 debut in Carnegie Hall guest conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra after his superior bows out suddenly. With superstardom in his sights, he heads to an afterparty where his sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman) introduces him to Felicia, an aspiring stage actress.
Leonard and Felicia immediately fall in love from there and after that point, Maestro explores the complexities and conflicts that arise within their relationship and marriage all the way to its tragic end. These include the raising of their three children, Leonard’s affairs with other women in addition to men, the composer’s beautiful rendition of Mahler’s iconic Fifth Symphony Adagietto, Felicia’s time acting in an anthology series, as well as private debates amongst each other after their daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) asks about scandalous gossip surrounding them.
Cooper demonstrates incredible evolution in his storytelling abilities through his directorial approach to Maestro. Shooting the first half of the film in black-and-white serves to accentuate the beauty of Leonard and Felicia’s romance; with director of photography Matthew Libatique’s moody shadows emphasizing the wondrous intimacy of what’s happening on screen, whether it’s Felicia trying to guess the number her lover is thinking of on a sunny day outside, or if the two are sharing secrets with each other during post-coitus conversation. Meanwhile, the color sequences in the second half showcase the harsh realities of their love, such as one sad Thanksgiving morning that sees Felicia confront Leonard in an attempt to regain power and attention in their marriage.
The script Cooper co-wrote with writer Josh Singer also does a stellar job in enlightening audiences to both Leonard and Felicia’s respective philosophies on art, the self and the connection between the two. An example comes when Leonard confesses a constant feeling of sadness within him to Felicia, who encourages him with the response: “If there isn’t something singing inside you, there’s nothing inside you, and if there’s nothing inside you, you can’t make music.” Another comes when the composer confides in someone the idea that in his words, “Artists either live a private inner life or a public, outer life. To carry both is to be schizophrenic.”
On that note, the two leads carry Maestro with amazing chemistry and equally commanding performances, with Bradley Cooper replicating Bernstein’s eccentric manner of fast talking and eloquent vocabulary with an endearing pride and charisma that makes the composer appear like a man living mentally on his own planet. Leonard is another beast entirely when he’s at the podium of one of his concerts like his famous one at Ely Cathedral in 1976, where Cooper flails his arms and head around in a sweaty reverie of different directions to conduct some of the most incredible music ever created, setting us perfectly in Felicia’s shoes as a woman who loves her husband, but doesn’t understand him. Carey Mulligan wears this doubt and confusion in powerful facial expressions and matches Cooper with indelible power in their heated arguments, along with an uncanny ability to go from an animated conversation with Leonard one minute, and realistic sadness in the next upon learning an ominous revelation.
Cooper’s passion for Bernstein is apparent in every frame of Maestro, but problems arise when the film not only expects audiences to know the biggest moments in Leonard and Felicia’s marriage going into the film, but also is nonchalant in wanting to build conflict when his occasionally complicated behavior calls for it. An example comes in the first half when Leonard nonchalantly slaps the posterior of his clarinet player David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) with Felicia not far away. It’s one of the many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it developments that should have been followed by a scene of confrontation in a marital drama such as this.
What’s also worth noting is that while the soundtrack is a lovely catalog of Bernstein’s greatest works, a select few music choices just don’t mesh tonally or build the tension Maestro believes it does, like the use of the Jet Song from West Side Story when Leonard pulls into his lavish estate. And although there are many elements in Cooper’s latest that show incredible progress for his directorial abilities, he still wears his influences on his sleeve, from classical Hollywood dramas in the first half to the work of Robert Altman in the second, overlapping dialogue and all.
And yet, there’s a certain amount of bravery to admire within Cooper putting himself in front of the camera as well as behind it to tell the life story of his musical idol, therefore opening the proverbial floor to let audiences discuss amongst themselves whether or not Leonard Bernstein is a musician to celebrate despite his complexities, what kind of a man he was, and in turn, what kind of a man and artist is Cooper himself. Audiences will be chewing on all that and more for days on end, as well as gawk at Libatique’s breathtaking shot compositions and lighting, then search for Bernstein’s entire discography well after the film has ended. Bradley Cooper’s latest film challenges the way we see, hear, idolize, perceive and criticize artists across all mediums, and that’s why Maestro deserves a cry of bravo.