‘Maestro’: Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein Biopic Conducts a Sweeping Overview of the Legendary Composer’s Life

Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” is one of those films that must be seen on a big screen. It is essential for the viewing experience as it is the images and texture that drive this film forward. The other essential element is Carey Mulligan. Most of the pre-release hype has focused on Cooper, since this is his sophomore directorial effort and he plays the lead, legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Taking on the life of an American music giant is a bold proposition, but Mulligan becomes the beating heart of this project. She gives “Maestro” an intimacy the rest of the movie lacks, as it tries to capture the manic energy of a restless existence. The result is a dazzling overview of Bernstein’s life while still keeping the inner workings of the artist at bay.

Cooper’s technique here begins with bombast, as a young Bernstein bursts out of bed when a phone call informs him that he must fill in for Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic, with just a few hours to spare. The performance is a great success and initiates Bernstein’s career. A few years later at a dinner party, the conductor meets Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan), a refined Costa Rican-Chilean actor who instantly bonds with him. She also knows right from the start that Bernstein is bisexual. But even in the repressed early 1950s, she accepts her new love for who he is. The two marry as Bernstein continues to rise as the first globally popular American conductor. Despite his genuine love for Felicia, Bernstein is hard to be with because of his restless nature, lingering unhappiness and his compulsive affairs with other men.

Something about the famously crazed, bohemian nature of the music world attracts Cooper as a filmmaker. His directorial debut was a hit version of “A Star Is Born,” where he starred next to Lady Gaga as one of those artists who keeps spiraling into their own abyss. “Maestro,” set in the world of classical music, is both biopic and study of a major talent living in perpetual chaos. The screenplay by Cooper and Josh Singer rushes through the basics of Bernstein’s life, swerving between grandiose historical moments and intimate battles. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique, who also shot “A Star Is Born,” reaches breathtaking heights. Bernstein’s early years are shot in high contrast black and white, using the academy ratio to evoke the bygone ‘40s. The later decades are captured in lush technicolor. Libatique’s camera flies, glides, tracks and pans as if on a race when Bernstein’s life gets overwhelming. Much of it is virtuoso work that brings across how lives such as this are perpetually on the go. Wisely, Cooper then goes for static wide angles when Bernstein conducts, to let us get a glimpse of the character’s ecstasy in the moment. The best of such scenes takes place when Bernstein conducts Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973. Soaked in sweat, the artist looks enveloped by the music.

The music holds together a grand movie that still struggles to find a clear picture or idea about its subject. Very deep, important topics are explored in spurts. In a great, sustained scene, Felicia chastises Bernstein for being so hard to live with and channeling his inner rage at everyone, even in the way he conducts. What this drama is too timid to explore is where the rage comes from. Bernstein’s formative years are ignored or why classical music became his vocation. His progressive politics are also never touched upon (Felicia once threw a party for the Black Panthers). Being a Jewish musician in 1940s and ‘50s America is also briefly glanced at when maestro Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov), an emigre from Russia, suggests Bernstein change his name to Burns. This way he will be more readily accepted into high circles. To Cooper’s credit, he doesn’t always go for the obvious biopic moments. There are no big sequences reminding us that Bernstein composed “West Side Story.” His most famous musical is simply mentioned in passing during an interview. 

The trickiest material is Bernstein’s sexuality. By the end we sense the real source of his unhappiness was his living a double life. Scenes of strong tension revolve around social pressures that go unspoken. A double vice is going on here where Bernstein hurts Felicia by being unfaithful with men, while also keeping discreet that he’s bisexual. The impulsive mania of the man comes across so well in a scene where he bumps into a former lover (Matt Bomer) with his wife and baby. Bernstein smiles at the infant and says, “I’ve slept with both your parents!” When Felicia shares that a male cast member she thought had a thing for her actually likes one of her male friends, she bemoans, “I seem to be attracted to a certain type.” Mulligan is thus the anchor because she’s like the lightning rod enduring all that comes with Bernstein, something the conductor’s sister (Sarah Silverman) warns her about early on. It’s moving material that never expands too much because Cooper also wants to continue covering key dates in the Bernstein timeline. Sometimes what needs to be said comes across visually, like Cooper dancing in a sailor’s uniform during an invigorating dance sequence to the music of “Fancy Free,” a 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet Bernstein wrote the music for.

Classic artists are always challenging to dramatize. Last year we had “Tár,” which used the terrain to explore abuses of power. “Maestro” seems to understand that a musician like Bernstein lives much of himself in the interior. He can’t quite explain to anyone why he’s so impulsive and selfish. People like this frequently make for lousy partners and parents because of the sheer demands or obsession of their work. It gets worse the more famous you become. Bernstein’s sense of peace is taken away because he has to hide so much as well. Felicia is also wrapped up in the façade, going so far as to encourage her husband to lie to their daughter (Maya Hawke), when she hears rumors about her father’s sexual escapades. If only the movie would dig deeper. Still, as a cinematic experience it remains impressive with stunning moments. Scenes wonderfully re-create the artistic world of the ‘50s with bohemian fervor. Cooper also fully inhabits the role, to the point of mumbling his lines in an effort to catch Bernstein’s cadence. Brush aside the controversy over his prosthetic nose. For the twilight years Cooper’s transformation through makeup is a sight to behold. And, of course, there’s the music. “Maestro” puts on an immersive show about a complex man who might always remain enigmatic in every sense of the word.

Maestro” releases Nov. 22 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 20 on Netflix.