Say what you like about Bradley Cooper, the man sure likes to set himself a challenge. After directing and starring in A Star Is Born, in which he played the guitar and sang, this time Cooper directs, produces, co-writes and stars in a film about another musician – and not a fictitious character this time, but Leonard Bernstein himself, one of the most revered conductors and composers of the late 20th century. And he does so with reverence, intellect and talent.
However, the title Maestro is slightly misleading. This film is not just about Leonard Bernstein; it is about Bernstein (Cooper) and his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). One can argue that all marriages are complex, but the Bernsteins’ was definitely on another level.
The film opens in colour, with an elderly Bernstein seated at a piano, reminiscing about his wife. After this the film moves to black and white. Bernstein is sleeping when he gets a call: he is to conduct the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall at the age of twenty-five. When he draws the blinds, we find him in bed with his handsome young lover, David (Matt Bomer).
Bernstein leaps out of bed and into the theatre. In fact, he leaps and bounces everywhere, like an incredibly talented musical Tigger. After meeting the Chilean-born actress Felicia at a party, the two fall in love. Bernstein takes her – and Cooper takes the audience – on a whirlwind tour of his music. Cooper’s rendition of this is as stagey and over-the-top as his protagonist. Felicia knows about his boyfriends and is accepting of his peccadillos, going into the marriage (after a four-year courtship) with her eyes open but convinced it can work – and if it doesn’t, if it becomes ‘a sacrifice’, then she will leave. Only she doesn’t.
In this initial phase of the film and the relationship, the almost constant bounciness of the couple makes their love seem somewhat fake and theatrical. Only rarely do we see glimpses of what Bernstein is like when he is less Tiggerish, with occasional very dark moments interrupting all that frenetic jollity.
There is an issue in the first section of myriad characters being introduced, without us knowing precisely who everyone is. Bernstein’s frantic leaping all over the place seeps into this part of the storytelling, although the composer’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman) features strongly. Themes such as antisemitism are touched on, but not in depth. When the film reverts again to colour, it is less experimental and follows are more conventional trajectory, but it is also rather stronger.
As the marriage begins to flounder, Mulligan comes into her own to give a career-best performance as the put-upon wife whose own trajectory faltered after her marriage to the maestro. The portrayal of the couple’s break-up and reconciliation, as well as Felicia’s illness, are extremely moving.
Cooper caught some flak when the trailer was released, with a small but noisy crowd complaining about his prosthetic nose and accusing him of “Jewface”. It is true that Cooper could have pulled off his performance without the additional appendage, but his likeness to Bernstein – particularly in his latter years – is astonishing, as is his ageing make-up, which is incredibly natural-looking and required the skills of a vast team of make-up artists. In fact, production values are high across the board, with great sets and costumes.
Of course, Bernstein’s magical music pervades the film. Cooper performs at Ely Cathedral, conducting Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, as Bernstein did in 1973. It is a tremendous achievement, and perhaps the pinnacle of Cooper’s excellent performance. Like Bernstein’s music, this movie won’t appeal to everybody, but it is an accomplished and moving biopic of two fascinating people, and a glimpse behind the public face of a truly great artist.
Maestro will be in cinemas in the UK from November 24 and then Netflix from December 20