The towering legacy of Leonard Bernstein is undeniable, as of course are his extraordinary talents. Having had the privilege to perform in West Side Story, a show composed by Bernstein, I know first-hand the complex yet undeniable grandeur of his work. The influence he had on the world of musical theatre, as well as classical composition, cannot be understated. Talks to bring the life of Bernstein to the big screen have been ongoing for a number of years, with powerhouse directors Martin Scorcese and Stephen Spielberg at different times considered for the project. Instead, the reins were ultimately handed to veteran actor turned blossoming director Bradley Cooper in his sophomore feature following 2018’s breakout hit A Star Is Born. Working as both the film's director and leading man, this is clearly a passion project for Cooper, and while the final product may be cursory and undercooked at times, the passion clearly shines through to create a dynamic and heartfelt look at the life of one of America’s biggest musical icons.
The film, set mostly in flashbacks, is structured primarily around the relationship between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Monteleagre, played by Carey Mulligan. We first meet them as star-crossed lovers in the late 1940s, with both Leonard and Felicia’s careers firmly on the rise: Leonard in the musical field and Felicia in her career on Broadway. The film, in its opening act, very cleverly resembles an old-fashioned Hollywood production, with sweeping black and white cinematography, huge big band Bernstein numbers and accents that lie firmly in the bounds of old Hollywood (close your eyes in this portion and Cooper’s accent sounds eerily similar to that of Jimmy Stewart).
As the relationship develops and things become more frosty, the film transforms into something more closely resembling Hitchcock or late-Stanley Donen, moving from black and white to colour, tinting into an old 70s style and making it feel a lot more closed-off and intimate. The very first scene in this style, set at a party, contains a number of close-up shots to stress the focus on the subtly draining psyches of its central characters, as a lot of bitterness and anxiety is left firmly unsaid. Perhaps an attempt to show the passing of time through cinematic style, perhaps a change in tone from lovesick to sick love, perhaps a visual representation of the changing style of Bernstein’s work. Whatever the case may be, it is an effective and unique choice that sets the film apart from other films of the genre.
Of course, none of that would mean anything if it wasn’t for the extraordinary central performances. Bradley Cooper beautifully captures Bernstein’s lively, passionate energy for his work, as well as the more closed-off character, sometimes owning a room while at other times feeling like a deer in headlights. A lot has been made of the choice to fit him with a large prosthetic nose, a choice defended by his family but skewered by others who feel it plays into antisemitic stereotyping. While I am not here to debate the merits and pitfalls of the decision, something I will leave to those more qualified than I, in its practical use it is mostly unnoticeable, though on a few occasions in more intimate shots the prosthetic line is more so.
Nevertheless, it is a terrific performance and the awards hype Cooper will undoubtedly receive will be justified. I do hope, however, that in the bravura of Bradley Cooper’s stardom, the magnificent work done by Carey Mulligan in this film is not lost. She is extraordinary and entirely believable in the role of a loving but slowly embittered wife and mother, trying to hold together her career and relationship as Bernstein becomes embroiled in doubts about his own sexuality and as his passion for art overtakes his passion for love. As we move into the third act and she is set free she really takes over the film, delivering what I believe is a career-best performance; one of the best of the year!
The film is, however, not without issues, the primary issue coming from the second act’s messy narrative structure. The choice to centre the majority of the film around the central relationship is a clever one, as it avoids issues that can plague other biopics (most recently Michael Mann’s Ferrari) in which too much is focused on and so nothing can develop. Yet even with this choice and with a 129-minute running time, the final package still felt slight, particularly in the second act. The film honestly needed more time to develop the cracks of the central relationship, as large portions of vital context and exposition felt entirely excluded once love turned to bitterness, making it difficult to follow why characters had begun to act with greater hostility to one another.
Eventually, we get back on track and the final act is much more emotionally satisfying and easy to understand, but it does lose its way for a time and needs to be anchored back to finish on a high note. There is also an argument to be made that the film doesn’t dig deep enough into Bernstein’s mental state, as issues such as depression and struggles with sexuality are touched upon but never really explored, instead opting for a more celebratory tone, a common issue with estate-financed biopics. Finally, in the first act, we briefly drop into the world of musical theatre, as Cooper becomes part of one of his own numbers, the famous ‘New York, New York’ sequence from On The Town. He’s no Gene Kelly but gives it his best and creates what I think is one of the more unique and entertaining scenes in the film. This is the device's only use however, which felt like a tease for something interesting that wasn’t utilised to its full potential, as had it been used elsewhere in the narrative it could’ve opened up some fascinating insights into the way Bernstein views his musical creations.
Maestro is a reverent portrait of a genius with outstanding central performances, terrific music and a steady directorial hand. With that reverence can occasionally bring a weightless feeling to the narrative, but its positives do outweigh its negatives and I think it ultimately is an accomplished work both in front of and behind the camera for Cooper. If you are able to watch the conducting scenes in Maestro without feeling some of the life and love of music shine into your soul just a little, I’m sorry to say you may just lack one!
Maestro will be on Netflix in UK from 20th December 2023.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor