Running Time: 129 mins
UK Distributor: Netflix
UK Release Date: 22 December 2023
WHO’S IN MAESTRO?
Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Michael Urie, Gideon Glick, Sam Nivola, Miriam Shor, Alexa Swinton
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Bradley Cooper (director, writer, producer), Josh Singer (writer), Fred Berner, Amy Durning, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (producers), Matthew Libatique (cinematographer), Michelle Tesoro (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Renowned composer Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) navigates a complex relationship with Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan)…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MAESTRO?
Pretty much as soon as Maestro was announced, it was destined to become an Oscar contender. In addition to depicting the life story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers Leonard Bernstein, it has attracted major awards-friendly talent both in front of the camera – primarily Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan as Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre respectively – and behind it, with not only Cooper directing and co-writing (his second as a filmmaker after his smash-hit take on A Star Is Born) but also the likes of both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg on-board as producers. With that much gravitas involved, the film would have to screw up BAD in order to come under its admittedly high expectations.
The good news is that Maestro just about meets the standards imposed on its high-profile hirings, and although it isn’t wholly perfect certain areas, it is effective enough to further establish Cooper as a sheer force on both sides of the screen.
The film, which Cooper co-wrote with Oscar-winning Spotlight scribe Josh Singer, follows Bernstein’s life from his emergence as a world-renowned conductor and composer at the age of twenty-five, to his later lifestyle as a gay man. However, anyone expecting a warts-and-all biopic showing Bernstein’s numerous musical achievements in chronological order will be surprised to know that Cooper and Singer, instead, frame their subject’s life as a tragic romance, with the central focus being on the relationship between Cooper’s Bernstein and Mulligan’s Felicia, including their initial meeting and passionate bond that eventually led to their marriage and several children, and also his numerous discrepancies with male lovers standing in the way of their ultimate happiness, before fate waves its uncompromising hand.
One of the things that Maestro smartly does is resist the urge to become a full-on Leonard Bernstein biopic. While it certainly depicts a number of significant events in his life, such as his big break after being called up at the last minute to replace the ill conductor of the New York Philharmonic – in fact, that’s one of the very first scenes in the film – many of them are intriguingly cast to the side. It only ever mentions Bernstein’s accomplishments in passing dialogue, from his philanthropic work to his heading of orchestras across the world, with his contributions to films and musicals like On the Waterfront and, most famously, West Side Story also receiving the exposition treatment. Even Bernstein’s music itself is only portrayed outside of the diegesis, with many of his well-known compositions forming the film’s musical score. For those going in not knowing much about the man and his career beforehand, it might seem somewhat jarring to see all of his professional work be treated like an afterthought, and in some respects it is easy to see some people calling it hollow and unengaging.
However, as someone who really isn’t that much of a Leonard Bernstein expert either, I still found Maestro to be an intoxicating experience because, if one takes out the biographical elements, it still works as an exceptionally moving romance. As with A Star Is Born, Cooper recognises that the pure heart and soul of his film lies in the bond between its two central characters, and how their relationship might change over the years but their love for one another never truly does. Pretty much right away, you see why they would initially be drawn to one another, since their passion for what they love doing – for him it’s music, while for her it’s acting – is initially irresistible, and even as they go through the later trials and tribulations of their marriage, including his increasingly unsubtle attraction to men, that spark between them never fully goes out. Cooper and Singer’s script takes the viewer through Leonard and Felicia’s emotional rollercoaster without plunging into overly melancholic territory, maintaining a largely consistent flow that is deeply moving when it needs to be, although it does occasionally feel uneven in its overall pacing which impacts some of the more poignant plot points of this romantic drama.
Cooper also manages to strike up a compelling on-screen relationship with his co-star, with both he and Mulligan putting in a pair of absolutely astounding performances that the actors easily get lost within, forming strong chemistry that burns brightly all throughout. Cooper, in particular, simply becomes Leonard Bernstein in an all-encompassing turn that’s bound to net him plenty of attention with awards voters, along with make-up that is utterly seamless (as for the “controversy” surrounding the amplification of the Jewish Bernstein’s nose, it’s really nothing to get that upset about, as you get used to it very quickly). Mulligan, though, more than holds her own in a profound turn that will, at times, leave you utterly on the verge of tears, especially as her character goes through some rough bouts later in the heart-wrenching narrative. Both are key to this central romance working as well as it does, since both are giving it all they’ve got in parts that might as well have been written exclusively for them to play at some point in their esteemed careers.
As a filmmaker, Cooper puts his naturalistic style to strong use, with even the most expository dialogue still feeling authentic to how people would deliver such lines, especially at the periods in time where many scenes take place. He also finds time to dabble in old-school Hollywood directorial techniques, with certain shots within Matthew Libatique’s striking cinematography – especially during the black-and-white first half – looking like something out of an Orson Welles movie, and at times it will even slip into some extravagantly fantastical musical sequences like the ones you’d find in an old Gene Kelly picture. What I like about Cooper’s direction, and I noticed this a lot in A Star Is Born as well, is that he blends post-modern naturalism with an old-fashioned approach to his storytelling, and in Maestro he really does manage to bring those two styles together without compromising the raw emotion at the heart of his narrative.
Its occasional unevenness does make me love it a little less than A Star Is Born, but Maestro is a damn fine sophomore effort that proves, much like Leonard Bernstein himself, that Bradley Cooper is the real deal when it comes to giving the audience exactly what they want. Hopefully, it will also live up to some of its early awards hype, too.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Maestro is an impressive follow-up to A Star Is Born for filmmaker/lead actor Bradley Cooper, who astonishes on both sides of the camera in a rousing and romantic retelling of the life of composer Leonard Bernstein, with his chemistry with an equally great Carey Mulligan alone more than making up for some of its unevenness.