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  • Writer's pictureKurt Loder

Maestro: Cooper’s love note to the late Leonard Bernstein

Courtesy Photo Bradley Cooper stars in the new Maestro, which is directed by himself.

Maestro is only the second movie that Bradley Cooper has produced and directed and co-written and starred in, but even more than his first film, the 2018 A Star Is Born, the new one is a master class in golden-age Hollywood filmmaking. In creating this inspired account of the life (or lives) of Leonard Bernstein, the celebrated orchestra conductor and composer who bestrode the American midcentury as a colossus of high culture, Cooper combines the distilled essence of glittering celebrity with flourishes of showbiz surrealism and, toward the end, a frankly weepy warmth. It’s a classic great-man movie.

Oddly, though, despite its scintillating performances and knockout cinematography (by Matthew Libatique, in both color and black-and-white), this expensively mounted Netflix production falls short of greatness itself. Maybe that’s because the Bernstein legend doesn’t signify in quite the way it did back in the day when a young Bradley Cooper fell under the sway of the man’s passionate, baton-flailing charisma. Heard today, Bernstein’s famous rendition of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony,” for instance, is still grandly beautiful; but the world is a noisier place now, and classical music has always been a hard sell. It’s a fair question how many listeners there are who might still get excited by it.

Bernstein himself ranged far beyond the concert halls where he first found success—earning an Oscar nomination for his score for the 1954 On the Waterfront, creating an enduring theatrical hit with the 1957 West Side Story and becoming an international TV icon with his 14-year series of “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS. Cooper maintains a tight focus on the man’s personal life, concentrating most intently on the sweeping love he shared with his Chilean wife, Felicia (a superbly controlled performance by Carey Mulligan), and the complications created by his frequent homosexual dalliances.

Cooper takes a bold approach to this material. The movie begins in 1943, with an abstract image that resolves into a scene in which Bernstein is in bed with another man. It turns out we’re backstage at Carnegie Hall, where the young Lenny, an assistant conductor, has just received word he’ll be standing in for the ailing head conductor tonight. He rises to his knees, begins tapping on his companion’s butt as if it were a pair of bongos, then runs from the room while we watch, from high overhead, as he makes his way to a concert-hall balcony.

Then, with no transition, we see him walking out onstage to conduct his first concert. (Bernstein had no rehearsal for this debut—but after being broadcast nationwide on radio, the performance instantly made his name.)

The movie is distinguished by the intimacy of its love scenes. When Lenny (as everybody calls him) first meets Felicia, at a party in the home of the great pianist Claudio Arrau, they make an immediate, heady connection (which allows them to smoothly deliver useful plot explication as they trade backstories). Later, they venture into a theater where a performance of On the Town—the 1944 musical Bernstein created with choreographer Jerome Robbins—is being staged. Stepping away from Felicia, Lenny suddenly transforms into one of three dancing sailors in the show. (The fact that Cooper can also dance, at a Broadway level, on top of everything else, made me question a couple of my life choices.)

One of the most expertly designed scenes in the movie is a bickering interaction, late in the story, between Lenny and Felicia. It’s shot at a midrange distance, never closing in, and yet the actors, without shouting, make us feel the hurt of each angry barb. Equally memorable is a scene involving Lenny and his daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke), who has heard rumors of her father’s semi-secret life as a gay man. We can almost see some part of Lenny’s soul sinking behind his eyes as he sadly denies this story.

In the movie, we see Felicia telling her husband to devote more time to composing his own music—which she felt was where his true gift lay—rather than interpreting other men’s classics. Had he heeded her urging, his original compositions might occupy a more spacious place in American musical culture. Cooper’s movie, an admirable tribute, is unlikely to change that.


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