Bradley Cooper's second film as a director is another magnificent music-fuelled effort, this time focusing on composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 07, 2023


When a composer pens music, it's the tune that they want the world to enjoy, not the marks on a page scribbling it into existence. When a conductor oversees an orchestra, the performance echoing rather than their own with baton in hand and arms waving is their gift. In Maestro, Bradley Cooper (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) is seen as Leonard Bernstein in both modes. His portrayal, especially in an unbroken take as the American great conducts Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at England's Ely Cathedral in 1973, is so richly textured and deeply complex that it's the career-best kind of astonishing. But Cooper as this movie's helmer, co-writer and one of its producers wants Maestro's audience to revel in the end result, not just in his exceptional on-screen contribution to bringing this virtuoso feature to fruition. And if he wants the love showered anyone's way first, it's towards Carey Mulligan (Saltburn), who the second-time director (and second-time director of a music-fuelled film, since his debut behind the lens was A Star Is Born) gives top billing for stepping so astoundingly into Felicia Montealegre Bernstein's shoes.

Symphonies should erupt for Mulligan's awards-worthy turn, which deserves to claim her third Oscar nomination (after 2010's for An Education and 2021's for Promising Young Woman) at a minimum. As the Costa Rican actor — a talent herself, of the stage and small screen — hers is similarly a never-better performance. It's a chalk-and-cheese partner to Cooper's, too; his is all about playing someone whose entire reason for earning a biopic is his effort and what it wrought, while she makes everything from the screwball-esque early sparks of connection to soul-aching pain feel natural. When she says "you don't even know how much you need me, do you?", the words melt, and the moment with it. When she beams by Cooper's side during a TV interview about his achievements, the practicalities of spending your life with someone have rarely felt as giddying. When Maestro's main pair quarrel on Thanksgiving, away from their family and as the parade trots along outside the window, each word is a cut. Every scene with Mulligan lays its emotions bare so thoroughly, yet never forcefully or showily, that she virtually spirits the audience into Felicia's footwear with her.

No matter who else receives Leonard's affections — clarinettist David Oppenheimer (Matt Bomer, Magic Mike's Last Dance) is one of the first — Maestro sees its story as a duet between him and Felicia, its key stars singing their parts accordingly. The crooning isn't literal, but the marital melodrama double act is perfectly attuned. The Bernsteins were harmonious in their love for each other, yet often in different ditties, bands and genres otherwise, which Cooper and Mulligan ensure hums as the baseline across the entire movie. Their relationship is as much the narrative's throughline as music, plus the clashing constantly pulsing inside Leonard. Indeed, the conflicts and contradictions that comprise a man who needs to be introverted to compose but extroverted to conduct — who can light up a room and descend into his own dark recesses — are all the more palpable and resonant because they're reflected through Felicia. Maestro examines not merely what it meant to be one Bernstein, but two.

Cooper's screenplay with SpotlightThe Post and First Man's Josh Singer isn't a strict birth-to-death tale, ignoring Leonard's childhood. It starts with another television chat as an elderly man at the piano, smoking and swooning about Felicia, before zipping back to when perhaps his existence truly began: November 14, 1943. On that day, the then-assistant conductor discovered he'd be guiding the New York Philharmonic for the first time that evening. Charted from the call that got the 25-year-old Leonard out of bed, and initially framed against a black rectangle with a white border — the light endeavouring to sneak in from behind a blind — this sequence, the film's second, says everything about Cooper's approach. The elated Leonard runs from his room to Carnegie Hall's balcony as if only a corridor links them, a technique to be repeated aesthetically and emotionally. Maestro skips from beat to beat like there's no pause in-between, and like it can't get from instant to instant fast enough.

Some biopics serve up a slice of life as a symbol for the whole, such as fellow 2023–24 awards contender Ferrari. Maestro hands around several plates, each dishing up a vignette that helps paint its overall portrait. As it leaps across five decades, it flits from heady thrills, buzzing parties and professional heights to complicated choices, heartbreak and loss. So swirls Leonard and Felicia meeting at his sister Shirley's (Sarah Silverman, The Bob's Burgers Movie) cocktail soiree, him marvelling at her acting, her questioning advice given to him to change his name and attitude, wedded bliss, domestic disharmony, children (Asteroid City's Maya Hawke plays their eldest Jamie), affairs, rumours, arguments, illness, hard conversations and tougher realisations. So dances a sweepingly dynamic feature that takes the concept of basing its style on its subject, and using that style to do its subject's intricacies justice, to its core.

With its jumps from black and white to colour as well, and between the 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect rations — A Star Is Born returnee Matthew Libatique's 35-millimetre-shot cinematography is ravishing — Cooper's handling of Maestro in look, format, air and atmosphere isn't new. But it couldn't feel more fitting for someone who put his all into track after track, composition after composition and conducting performance after conducting performance, each of which said something about Leonard. Cooper lets the maestro's music do ample talking, his soundtrack filled with it. Cue the symphonic suite from On the Waterfront; pieces from Fancy Free, On the Town, Trouble in Tahiti and Mass; and the prologue to West Side Story. Each is deployed precisely and powerfully, whether in turning courtship into a fantasy ballet that also demonstrates the push and pull of Leonard's bisexuality, or getting tension dancing when romantic discontent can only lead to confrontation. 

That said, some of the movie's best music moments are set to other tunes, and not just Mozart and Mahler's works that Leonard led orchestras to perform. (Yes, this is 2023's second film Down Under to unpack a baton-wielding figure who adores the Austro-Bohemian icon, after Tár; that picture's fictional Lydia was a Bernstein protégée, it advised.) Shirley Ellis' 'The Clapping Song' bounces with bittersweetness, with the inherently upbeat track arriving when there's little to be cheerful about in the Bernstein household except appreciating what time you can with those you cherish. With Tears for Fears' 'Shout' late in the piece, catharsis and release thumps as heavily as the song itself. Donning his filmmaker's cap, Cooper arranges every inch of Maestro this meticulously, and with a monumentally moving and meaningful viewing experience in mind. Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon) and Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans) produce the film after each originally planning to helm it — and holding its own with the idea of a Scorsese- or Spielberg-directed Leonard Bernstein movie is another of Maestro's resounding triumphs.

Maestro screens in cinemas from Thursday, December 7 and streams via Netflix from Wednesday, December 20.


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