Uneven Leonard Bernstein Biopic Maestro Masterfully Conducts Its PerformancesMovies Reviews Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper has already drawn attention (or disdain, depending on your propensity for internet discourse) regarding the visual decisions which make up his sophomore directorial effort Maestro. While his prosthetic nose has fueled endless thinkpieces, there is a more meaningful creative decision that the biopic coils around, revealing its outlook with emboldening confidence. As Felicia (Carey Mulligan) watches her husband, renowned composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper), accept a post-concert round of applause, the camera holds on her back, rigidly observant and loosely balancing a cigarette. Suddenly the film lurches forward in time, but the camera is once again behind her, capturing the same raised shoulders, posture tipped forward towards the streetlamps. This marks the moment when Maestro switches from stark black-and-white to full color.
No doubt such a decision will be dismissed as unnecessarily flashy (a critique that could undoubtedly be leveled at Cooper in other instances, particularly the more emotionally manipulative flashbacks intercut through both of his feature films), but it actually draws attention to Maestro’s gentle and lovely musings on the nature of marriage, celebrating the different stages that constitute a long-term relationship. Felicia and Leonard’s relationship is initially swooningly romantic, lit by the warmth of a single stage light or a sitting room lamp; two moths attracted to the same flame. The early stage of their connection is soaring and earnest, preceding a more complicated moment, where their mutual understanding is tested and rendered meaningful in its new shades. It is the fulfillment of Leonard’s initial assessment, a kind of technicolored prophecy: “The world wants us to be only one thing and I find it very deplorable.”
Maestro is about this famous couple, the way their passions and careers braid into something knotty and beautiful. Its understanding of marriage is oddly advanced, arguing that their love was something which underwent trials and reassessments, seeing them choose to spend the waning minutes of their marriage together—a decision born from their genuine care and interest in the other, unconcerned with the seemingly non-issue of infidelity, now consigned to the past.
Late in the film, Bernstein passionately conducts an orchestra at the L.A. Cathedral to rousing success. The scene is lengthy, enamored with the conductor’s joyous involvement, before pulling back to show us that it has all been filtered through Felicia’s perspective, returning to her husband after a lengthy separation. When Maestro revels in their relationship, playing with the facets of Mulligan and Cooper’s endearing chemistry, it sings.
Cooper’s skill lies in crafting these momentous highs, blocking his actors to expose something novel and true. He positions his cast to deliberately disguise certain responses, spotlighting another’s expression; at a party, anonymous figures close in on an emotional Felicia, cleverly unmooring her.
Yet Cooper’s ability to pace the script he and Josh Singer wrote remains frustratingly unrefined, a problem that haunted his take on A Star Is Born. When Maestro focuses on Bernstein’s illustrious career, it feels historically stranded, at sea in a wave of unexplained events that make up the timeline of his professional life. The music follows no obvious chronology, melding together tracks selected to thematically reflect the events at hand. What could have been a thrilling recontextualizing of Bernstein’s work feels confusing and disjointed, distracting in each number’s misplacement. The highly emotional final act could have been heightened were the film willing to navigate the real-life sequence of events more adeptly, offering us a clearer way of untangling its late-stage interpersonal conflict.
Some will be upset by Maestro’s disinterest in Bernstein’s music, but if you are willing to embrace the film’s slower sensibilities, you’ll be rewarded with a careful portrait of a couple who redefine the scope of a successful marriage. Yet Cooper’s struggle to structure his stories and reign in his melodramatic tendencies flattens its successes into a somewhat lackluster, occasionally brilliant, ode to an American icon.
Director: Bradley Cooper
Writer: Bradley Cooper, Josh Singer
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Sarah Silverman, Maya Hawke
Release Date: November 22, 2023
London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.