NYFF 2023: Bradley Cooper Channels Leonard Bernstein to Find Himself in ‘Maestro’

Maestro is about an influential artist reconciling their dual roles as a creator and a performer of the arts.

One might see the promotional images and assume I’m referring to Leonard Bernstein, the legendary musician who serves as Maestro’s subject. While true, the artist in question is the film’s director, co-writer, and star, Bradley Cooper. It doesn’t seem coincidental that he chose Bernstein’s story as a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated directorial debut, A Star is Born. He allowed Cooper to examine a titanic figure of the entertainment world while contemplating his transition into a formidable filmmaker. 

Maestro tugs on a specific thread of Leonard Bernstein’s mythology: his marriage and family with Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). The film covers their four-decade-long relationship, from their first meeting after he becomes an overnight sensation as a last-minute conductor at Carnegie Hall to Montealegre’s valiant but fatal bout with breast cancer. Despite their lengthy and loving union, Bernstein and Montealegre deal with key foundational issues throughout their lives. Bernstein is chronically unfaithful, carrying on relationships with men including fellow musician David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick). Their most substantial challenge is the consequence of loving a singular figure who, as Felicia explains in a fierce fight, can suck the air out of the room.

Maestro. Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

Cooper expends massive cinematic energy to demonstrate how Bernstein wielded such overwhelming power. He sets Bernstein’s young adulthood at a frenetic, throbbing pace, moving slickly through his performances, composing, and courtship with Felicia. It’s the film at its most dazzlingly inventive. Cooper leverages monochromatic color and jaw-droppingly fluid transitions to offer a modern twist on Vincent Minelli and Gene Kelly’s Golden Age movie musicals. The charm and romance are infectious. Like Felicia does when Bernstein dresses up as a sailor to perform a song from On The Town, you effortlessly fall under the spell of Cooper’s stage-to-celluloid fantasy. However, the meticulous thought that went into every scene never gets lost. Cooper works as hard behind the camera as he does in front of it as Bernstein, and he wants you to see the effort. Miraculously, it’s never distracting; it’s movie magic.

And then the spell breaks. The black-and-white fades away, as does Bernstein and Montealegre’s youth, and their world settles into a colorful but unsettled maturity. A fundamental criticism of A Star is Born was Cooper’s struggle to maintain the first act’s intoxicating energy. The note also applies to Maestro. The dizzying force of Bernstein’s early years largely dissipates, leaving the film slightly deflated for a time. Cooper still delivers masterful musical performances in the second act; Bernstein’s performances of “Make Our Garden Grow” and at the Ely Cathedral are jaw-dropping. Still, the abrupt changes in pace and atmosphere make for a rough adjustment, even if it makes sense thematically. But Cooper does bounce back.

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in Maestro (Courtesy: Netflix)

Maestro is a punchier film than its predecessor, hitting its emotional and thematic beats with greater force and stylistic innovation. Bernstein’s middle age finds him grappling with his existential frustrations with his professional and personal life. In an interview, Bernstein expresses his fear that he is more of a performer than creator. While ostensibly discussing his compositions, he also refers to his “performance” as Leonard Bernstein, the blazing cultural supernova. Being Bernstein takes work, and he always worked, except when he was with Felicia. She gave him stillness when he operated at a higher frequency, captured when the couple leaned against each other outside and played a numbers game. As they got older, they lost that rhythm. Eventually, Bernstein grew tired of performing domesticity, seeking comfort with other men and flaunting his affairs in her face.

The movie ferociously captures the meltdown of the Bernsteins’ marriage. Their confrontations hurt, not because of harsh words or shouting, but from the palpable disconnection. Cooper conveys their intimate connection in their early days through close-up shots. As older adults, a chasm exists between them and the camera. We can hear their misunderstandings and insults, but Cooper nearly severs our connection with them. It’s a brutally effective way of seeing a profound partnership fall apart after years of neglect. You feel for them both as their family is ripped apart and stitched together again upon Felicia’s breast cancer diagnosis. Cooper plays a lot with shadows, suggesting that either Felicia is doomed to live in his or that the truest Bernstein lives within them. When Felicia dies, however, he casts Bernstein in hers, illuminating her face in bright sunlight. She cast the shadows; she was his light.

Maestro. (L to R) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

The intricate details of Cooper’s directing and storytelling choices are also reflected in how he plays Bernstein. A popular judgment of a biopic is whether the actor “disappears” into the real-life person. Cooper doesn’t disappear into Leonard Bernstein, even with Kazu Hiro’s astounding prosthetic makeup. He does embody the musician’s emotional reality. Cooper uses his unique acting skillset – expressive eyes, whip-quick comic timing, and dramatic subtleties – to craft a more intimate portrait than straight mimicry can deliver. It is his best-ever performance, vivacious, vulnerable, and heartfelt. Carey Mulligan is equally excellent as his long-time love, Felicia. Mulligan portrays her with a grounded whimsy, unwavering in her faith in Bernstein while keenly aware of his faults. When Felicia realizes that faith may have been misplaced, Mulligan tears at the screen with an acid bite and withering looks, the disappointment radiating off her in pulsating waves. 

Maestro is a story about Leonard Bernstein, specifically his relationship with Felicia Montealegre. (For all of its stunning musical sequences, the film only skims the surface of his musical gifts and contributions.) It is just as much about Bradley Cooper and what he hopes to achieve as a filmmaker. The film is a marked improvement over A Star is Born. It is bolder, more innovative, and still incredibly entertaining and emotionally potent. He does this while exhibiting continued, if not elevated, excellence as an actor. Bernstein likely appealed to Cooper because they shared similar concerns about their place in the cultural canon. What is that people see first: the creator or the performer? With Maestro, Cooper re-affirms Bernstein’s legacy that you can be thrillingly, transformatively both. 

Maestro premieres in select theaters in November and arrives on Netflix December 20th.

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