Bradley Cooper co-writes (with Josh Singer), directs and stars in Maestro (on Netflix), a biopic that is equal parts the story of the legendary American composer, conductor, pianist Leonard Bernstein’s rise to fame and a love story. We first see Bernstein as a 70-year-old playing piano, being interviewed on camera, where he starts speaking of the haunting presence of his deceased wife. The film then goes back to 1943, switching from colour to black-and-white. A 24-year-old Bernstein is woken up by a phone call conveying that he has an opportunity to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. It’s a lyrical and inspired opening scene, filmed by Matthew Libatique, that tells you so much about the character’s life, passions, insecurities and sexuality.
Soon after, and high on his recent success, Bernstein meets aspiring actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), who he later marries. Cooper, the director, devotes a large portion of the film to Bernstein’s relationship with Felicia as they raise a family while also navigating life as artists pursuing their own careers. Felicia has to deal with Bernstein’s hubris and the pain of living with her closeted husband, conveyed so delicately by Mulligan. Her understated performance provides the emotional core though her accent is a bit distracting given Felicia’s Chilean upbringing. The explanation is that Felicia’s later years in America gave her the mid-Atlantic twang (apparently inspired by Katherine Hepburn).
Like Cooper’s previous directorial project A Star is Born (2018), Maestro explores the duality of an extroverted performer and the introverted nature of creators. The film also looks at the professional competition between man and wife, as his career takes centrestage, along with the challenges of living with a celebrated performer, a troubled genius and his ego.
As Bernstein, Cooper throws himself into the part, adopting nasal speech, sporting the prosthetic nose, changing hairstyles and fake tans while expertly handling both piano and baton. The actor reportedly spent six years preparing to perform the six-minute long scene shot in Ely Cathedral where he conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and two soloists performing Mahler (a recreation of a 1976 performance that took place at Cambridgeshire Cathedral). The work of the hair, make up and prosthetics departments is particularly impressive, but Cooper’s performance does occasionally feel laboured and superficial.
As a director, Cooper often lets his camera linger, letting the scene run long, like the Mahler performance or the tender, emotional moment between Felicia and Leonard towards the end of her life. Bernstein’s music provides the underlay; it is background and foreground. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg serve as producers. Interestingly, Spielberg directed the 2021 feature length film West Side Story, based on the musical composed by Bernstein.
The film opens with the Bernstein quote: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them, and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” Maestro is a 129-minute study of the life of an artist, but besides the love story, it doesn’t satisfyingly say much about the artist, his creation or his identity.