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The true story behind Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s new Netflix movie

The real events at the heart of the Leonard Bernstein biopic

Bradley Cooper plays legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein throughout his life in biopic Maestro. (Netflix)
Bradley Cooper plays legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein throughout his life in biopic Maestro. (Netflix)

Now streaming on Netflix, Maestro sees Bradley Cooper dramatise the life and career of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Odds are, the film has been brought to your attention lately due to the controversy surrounding the make-up Cooper has used to bring this legendary Jewish musician to life.

By adopting a prosthetic nose, The Hangover star has received a wave of backlash from the Jewish community, with many suggesting the look promotes antisemitic stereotypes.

Read more: The best music biopics

Despite primarily focusing on Bernstein’s acclaimed life in music, Maestro promises to look at these events through the specific lens of love and the relationship between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre, played in the movie by Carey Mulligan.

Eager to learn more? Here’s a quick whistle-stop tour of the real-life events that played a part in shaping Maestro.

Who is Leonard Bernstein?

Leonard Bernstein is one of the most important composers of all time. (Alamy)
Leonard Bernstein is one of the most important composers of all time. (Alamy)

After completing musical studies in the early '40s, Bernstein became the assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943 which soon led to him becoming the Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra in 1945. After taking his composing skills all around the world, he was later recruited as the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.

After completing musical studies in the early '40s, Bernstein became the Assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943 which soon led to him becoming the music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra in 1945. After taking his composing skills all around the world, he was later recruited as the music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.

In between advocating other US composers' work, Bernstein also wrote many of his own symphonies inspired by his Jewish heritage, a number of operas and scores for movies such as 1954’s On The Waterfront.

Perhaps his most recognised contribution to the world of music arrived on Broadway where he joined forces with Stephen Sondheim for West Side Story and its accompanying film adaptation.

Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for Broadway's West Side Story. (Alamy)
Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for Broadway's West Side Story. (Alamy)

Many awards accolades flowed in the later years of Bernstein’s life, including a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The National Fellowship award received for his contributions to humanitarian causes such as Amnesty International.

This dedication to peace was illustrated during the Berlin Celebration Concerts in 1989 where Bernstein conducted on both sides of the Berlin Wall as it was being torn down. The event was seen as an act of collaboration and togetherness.

Bernstein was a long-time smoker and suffered from asthma throughout his life. He eventually retired from composing in October 1990 and died five days later aged 72.

What is the real story behind Maestro?

Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. (AP Photo/Alamy)
Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. (AP Photo/Alamy)

While Bernstein’s extensive professional achievements will no doubt be touched upon in Cooper’s movie, Maestro looks at the man’s life through his relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre.

Played by Mulligan, Montealegre was a Costa Rican and Chilean actress who met Bernstein at a party in 1946. By 1951, the pair were married and remained so until Montealegre’s death from lung cancer in 1978.

During the time they were together, they welcomed three children and formed a trusted and close family bond however, Bernstein’s personal life made the situation somewhat unorthodox.

Engaging in relationships with both men and women throughout his life, his West Side Story collaborator Arthur Laurents later described Bernstein as “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”

Portrait of Felicia Montealegre, as Joan in Joan at the Stake (Honegger-Claudel/Alamy)
Portrait of Felicia Montealegre, as Joan in Joan at the Stake (Honegger-Claudel/Alamy)

His affairs were known to Montealegre who later commented on them in a private letter sent to her husband. "You are a homosexual and may never change – you don't admit to the possibility of a double life,” she explained, “But if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?"

Two years before Montealegre’s death, Bernstein temporarily left their marital home to live with a music scholar colleague. However, when his wife received a lung cancer diagnosis, he returned to her side and stayed with her until her passing.

Maestro is streaming on Netflix now. Watch the trailer below: