There's an eternal temptation with public figures to convince ourselves that, because we see and hear them so often, we must actually know them. But listening to someone's musical output for decades, or watching their every TV appearance, doesn't necessarily bring us any closer to understanding the movements of their heart or the decisions they make. That unknowability of celebrity (and of everyone!) is the central idea behind Bradley Cooper's new film Maestro. Though it tells the story of iconic American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Maestro's impressionistic style — its preference for producing beautiful images over reciting biographical details — goes a long way to distinguish it from bog-standard biopics.
In addition to directing Maestro, Cooper also stars in the lead role — just as he did in 2018's A Star Is Born. In his directorial debut, Cooper explored the allure of artistic fame in America: how it can seemingly come out of nowhere; how it can fulfill the rags-to-riches dream that his country has always promised; and how, eventually, it can drain you dry. Maestro is not really concerned with either end of that spectrum (Bernstein did not burst onto the stage fully formed, nor did his reputation spiral later in life), but one thing it does share with A Star Is Born is its meaty lead actress role. As Bernstein's wife Felicia Montealegre, Carey Mulligan is the heart of Maestro. It is through her powerfully restrained performance that we can connect the various fragments of Bernstein's life that we glimpse in the film.
Felicia haunts the frame even before Mulligan appears. Maestro opens with an aged Bernstein in full color and makeup, sitting at his piano, lamenting about how he sometimes sees a ghostly afterimage of his late wife lingering around their house. The film then transitions into black-and-white, taking us to Bernstein's youthful vigor, when he was energized by the awesome power of music. Literally: We see him wake up in bed beside another handsome man, before triumphantly running through the corridors of a concert hall and eventually onto a stage, all to the sweeping sound of Bernstein's own compositions.
Jason McDonald/Netflix Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.'
Such surreal, symbolic imagery (prioritizing emotional experiences and remembered feelings over didactic "then this happened…" structure) continues throughout Maestro, to great effect. When Bernstein meets Montealegre at a cocktail party, their flirtation is framed beautifully. The two of them, standing outside to share a cigarette, are shown in silhouette against a window within which we can see the rest of the partygoers carrying on — until another couple slams their faces against the window, breaking the illusion of separation between foreground and background (echoing the song said couple performs at the beginning of the party, about someone getting so caught up in the magic of a movie that they physically attack the screen).
Scenes like this demonstrate how Cooper is not employing black-and-white just for a cheap evocation of "the past" but to utilize the format's unique storytelling capabilities. The same is true for his use of full color; when the film leaves black-and-white behind, this change is evident not just in the character's faces but in how the camera luxuriates in the lush foliage of the Bernsteins' Connecticut estate.
Much later in the film (and in their relationship), husband and wife are having a fierce argument in a side room amidst their family's Thanksgiving gathering. As the two shout past each other, the overlapping audio makes it hard to discern the specifics of what each is saying…that is until Montealegre unleashes a truly cruel put-down, the harshness of which is emphasized not by Oscar-bait over-acting but by the bleakly hilarious sight of a gigantic Macy's parade balloon floating past the windows behind them. What emotional understanding we do get of these characters is achieved through awesome images like this rather than recitations of their Wikipedia pages.
The couple is fighting because, even though Bernstein loves his wife dearly, their marriage has never been a reason for him to stop carrying on affairs with handsome — and younger — men. Maestro does not shy away from the complications of its subject's sexuality; instead, it takes viewers back to a time that can now seem foreign even though it wasn't that long ago, when queer people had to live within heteronormative structures of marriage while still finding ways to express their real desires. Interestingly, Maestro depicts how Bernstein's truth was resented by his family. Maya Hawke's performance as daughter Jamie Bernstein, for instance, recalls Dan Futterman's character from The Birdcage — a straight scion who resents their queer parents. That's always weird to watch, and must have been even harder to live through.
Jason McDonald/Netflix Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro.'
Throughout the film, Cooper's Bernstein is asked by interviewers and loved ones about what motivates him. The only answer he gives is a simple one: It all comes back to his love for music. We see that in action during scenes where he's conducting orchestras and choirs, with Cooper embodying the sweaty passion of Bernstein's many recorded performances. Whatever this tells us about the character, it also indicates what drew Cooper to direct a film that had previously been pursued by some of America's greatest living directors (Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, both producers on Maestro, were at various earlier points slated to direct it themselves).
That precious feeling, of guiding a collective of artists in combining their talents to make music greater than the sum of their parts, must be the reward not just of conductors such as Bernstein but of directors including Cooper, who clearly relish the precise combination of varied filmmaking elements to achieve his vision. His own acting performance is just one part of that recipe, and though some have criticized the prosthetics he wears to imitate Bernstein (which may particularly grate considering that Cooper once played the lead role in The Elephant Man on Broadway without any makeup at all), it does seem to be of a piece with his goal of creating as immersive a film as possible. Viewers' mileage with that decision may vary, as with everything else in this singular film.
Precisely because Maestro is such an auteur vision that eschews many standards of biopics, it's possible it could only have been made by Netflix. At the same time, Maestro interestingly cuts against the worst tendencies of Netflix's original programming. This is not a movie made for second-screen viewing; anyone glimpsing at their phone for even a moment may miss a key character moment or plot detail that is conveyed visually. It will be best to see in a theater during whatever release window Netflix provides — but even when viewed at home, Maestro deserves the same level of respect from viewers as one of Bernstein's public performances of the music of Mahler. Grade: B+
Maestro opens Nov. 22 in select theaters and will be available to stream Dec. 20 on Netflix.
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