Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix
This review was originally published on September 2nd. We are now bringing it back into circulation aimed at Maestrostreaming debut of on Netflix.
Carey Mulligan gets first billing in Bradley Cooper’s film about the life of conductor Leonard Bernstein (played by Bradley Cooper). And she deserves it. As Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, she must absorb, attract, protect and fend off every loving embrace and neglect from her brilliant husband. It’s a reactive performance, and Mulligan plays it with heartbreaking versatility. Yes, she does an accent and “part” just like Cooper. But we relate to her in ways we don’t relate to him.
As Bernstein, Cooper’s performance is a masterful reconstruction, but it remains a reconstruction, earthy and cool to the touch. (As for the much-speculated nose — it doesn’t look that different to Cooper’s own, not exactly short, trunk to me, except in scenes showing him as an old man, where the makeup is actually quite complete.) One gets the sense that the actor is obsessive studied every television appearance, every inch of documentary footage, to recreate Bernstein’s diction and mannerisms, his swagger and rapid-fire way of speaking. Maybe that’s the problem. It feels like we’re watching a TV interview with Bernstein, like he knows the camera is on him. There are almost no unprotected, intimate moments. Or rather, there are no unguarded, intimate moments that don’t feel like guarded, public moments.
The problem, and perhaps the point: The film opens with an elderly Bernstein, years after Felicia’s death, being interviewed for television, and the cameras are always on him throughout the film. This is, after all, a conductor who achieved stratospheric fame in part because of his public image and the way he used television to broaden the appeal of classical music to young audiences and ordinary Americans. The film suggests, intentionally or not, that the performance never ended for Bernstein, that he was always playing a part.
Maestro in a way, it proves that Cooper is a director with a real vision, even though it’s not a particularly successful film. He recreates with epic aplomb the legendary November 14, 1943 phone call from a young Bernstein, then assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, asking him to fill in at the last minute for flu-ridden guest Bruno Walter for a Carnegie Hall concert to be broadcast on live on the radio. A massive curtain, filtering light around its edges, dominates the screen as Lenny receives the phone call that will change his life and the course of classical music in the United States. When he triumphantly opens the curtain to let an explosion of light fill the room, we see that he is in bed next to a man, David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), who was Bernstein’s lover for several years before he met Felicia. The camera then follows Bernstein as the set opens onto the orchestra, in a delirious shot that deftly evokes the giddy nature of his sudden rise to celebrity.
Maestro it’s not a particularly long or dense picture. Cooper reportedly bristled at descriptions of it as a “biopic,” and it’s not hard to see why. The film does not claim to be a complete look at Bernstein, and there are many aspects of both his life and career that are largely left unmentioned. The focus here is on his marriage to Felicia, his homosexuality and his conducting, all of which are emotionally intertwined. Felicia seems to understand Lenny even better than he does himself. (“I know exactly who you are,” she says early on. “Let’s give it a whirl.”) He certainly loves her, and there’s nice chemistry between Cooper and Mulligan. In his conducting, however – in those frenzied, explosive public performances that Cooper once again recreates wonderfully – we sense an inner restlessness, a man longing to get out of his skin and his personality to find himself.
It’s a beautiful, exciting idea, but the film feels emotionally stunted, perhaps because this construction is based on the idea of trampling, of denial. It’s probably also why Mulligan almost plays Cooper off screen: her Felicia seems to know exactly who she is and our hearts break for her, while Lenny is a restless dynamo, impossible to pin down, a man who never quite realizes himself. There’s a wonderful moment near the end where Bernstein, now an old man, dances with his students at a party at Tanglewood, and we see a brief glimpse of unguarded freedom. But a glimmer remains. In this sense, perhaps the film lives up to its opening lines, something the real Bernstein said: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its real meaning is in the tension between conflicting answers.” If Maestro remains frustratingly unresolved, perhaps that’s because it has to be.