Maestro: a superbly acted biopic that’s disappointingly vague on Leonard Bernstein’s music

Bradley Cooper’s lively performance as composer Leonard Bernstein is filled with chatter and sparkle, but the film never really gets to the heart of the man, or the compositions that lay within.

13 September 2023

By Jessica Kiang

Maestro (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Venice International Film Festival  

Some of the crackliest moments in A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, were specifically about the act of creating music. A few bars of a new tune are coaxed into the shape of a hit, enlivened by the electricity of a crowd and a song is born – a thing of beauty but with labour pains and stretch marks that prove it’s earned. 

The director-star returns to the arena of the inordinately charismatic musician for his second feature, but maybe Leonard Bernstein’s real-life genius was such that to imagine a similar process for him would have felt presumptuous. Whatever the reason, the handsomely shot, superbly acted biopic Maestro is good on the man, and great on his marriage, but disappointingly vague about his music, as though all of that wondrous work just happened while Bernstein was busy doing other things. And other people. 

Although Maestro is a love story that plays out from Bernstein’s meeting with his future wife Felicia (a marvellous, grave but spirited Carey Mulligan, who gets this garrulous film’s few funny lines) right through to her deeply affecting death, it is not one in which sexual fidelity plays much part. All through their decades of marriage and the raising of their three children, whether cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s swooning imagery is in striking black-and-white, or saturated, oily Kodachrome-style colour, Bernstein is having affairs with various men. Felicia tolerates them, right until she realises the toll her endless forbearance has taken on her, in a show-stopper domestic argument scene set on Thanksgiving that’s made all the more incredible by the giant floating Snoopy bobbing dumbly past the windows of the couple’s Central Park West apartment.  

But back to bar one: in a gorgeously percussive monochrome sequence, Cooper’s Bernstein receives the life-changing phone call informing him that he is to conduct the New York Philharmonic that night. He is tangled in bedsheets with his clarinettist lover (Matt Bomer) but now dashes in pyjamas through Carnegie Hall from his upstairs apartment and onto the stage, tuxedoed, as though it all happened in one swift Clark-Kent-to-Superman-style transformation. Thus flung out of fame’s catapult, by the time of his meeting Felicia, a Broadway actress, at a party thrown by his sister (Sarah Silverman), Lenny is already the centre of any room’s attention. 

Their meeting is a giggly romantic delirium, cleverly written (by co-screenwriters Cooper and Josh Singer) to deliver both their backstories in the form of a fluttering flirtation. Their syncopation is already so genuine that it makes sense of the way Felicia will avert her eyes from Lenny’s later affairs: who among us would not make certain sacrifices to be one half of such an irresistible double act? But no one can exist under conditions of absolute selflessness forever, or certainly no one with a mind and an ego of her own. In one of the film’s most perceptive scenes Felicia confesses ruefully that she used to look down on those – even her own children – who craved Lenny’s time, when she herself held onto him by issuing no claim on him, by asking nothing of him, by being the only one who “didn’t need.” 

Yet to need is as human as to be needed, and it is only after Felicia’s lung cancer diagnosis – which she rages against in a heartbreakingly candid portrayal of the cruelty of terminal disease – that Lenny turns down public engagements and devotes himself to her.      

Cooper’s directorial style, right until the graceful slowdown of the concluding chapters, is to drop us mid-sentence into conversations and in-jokes, all go-go-go, chatter and sparkle and Lenny flinging himself from one affair to another, interacting with interviewers and strangers and old acquaintances alike, with a familiarity that insinuates that there is so much more to this relationship than meets his winking, laughing eye. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be this famous: you have licence to leap over the formalities because you can rightly assume everyone wants to be closer to you, to be on intimate terms with you, to be flattered by the momentary interest you show in them. Cooper’s performance dazzles (even if, especially in black-and-white, his animation never quite extends to the tip of his controversially enhanced nose), but the approach allows Bernstein little depth, as though the man, who was reportedly so much the extrovert in fear of being alone that he’d leave the door open while using the toilet, only existed within sight of others. 

This does a disservice to Bernstein’s musical legacy which came from some place inside him that the movie never accesses, and comprised myriad compositions, the wholesale revolutionising of the contemporary classical music scene and, with ‘West Side Story’ especially, the establishment of a blazing new standard in musical theatre. Key artistic collaborators get barely a look-in: choreographer Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie) is present in the background of a scene or two as  “Jerry”; Stephen Sondheim gets one scanty shout-out from Felicia as  “Stevie.” Bernstein states and restates his love for music, how it saves his life, and how, paraphrasing Edna St Vincent Millay, it is the summer that sings inside him. But aside from one powerful sequence, which soaringly recreates his iconic performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Ely Cathedral, Maestro is all about the singer, and not enough about the song.

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