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25 November 2023

Bradley Cooper’s thrill-seeking Leonard Bernstein

In Maestro, Cooper emphasises the composer’s ambition and hedonism. But Carey Mulligan is the film’s roaring heart.

By Pippa Bailey

The first time in Maestro we see Leonard Bernstein as a young man, he is woken by a phone call that will change his life. Behind him is a heavy curtain, an inch of light peeping in below it, that – it turns out when he tears it open – is a window dressing, but could equally well have concealed a stage. It’s November 1943, Bruno Walters is ill and Bernstein is to make a last-minute debut conducting the New York Philharmonic. He raps out a celebratory rhythm on his male lover’s bottom. In one, unbroken shot, we soar with Bernstein (Bradley Cooper, who also directs and co-writes) from the bedroom to the theatre – his two great stages.

Bernstein lived a big life, personally and professionally. He composed for theatre, ballet and film, including West Side Story and the score for On the Waterfront, and conducted many of the world’s major orchestras. He won Emmys and Grammys and great fame. Was he at heart a composer – introverted, alone, with a grand inner life – or a conductor – extroverted, a performer, with a grand outer life? Cooper’s Bernstein is both, caught between the two, rendering him “schizophrenic”. Maestro is an exuberant, sympathetic exploration of the toll such a life – and such success – takes on an individual, and on those in his orbit.

[See also: Ridley Scott’s fast and furious Napoleon biopic]

Bernstein – though married to a woman, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), for nearly three decades – engaged in multiple affairs with men. “I love too much, what can I say?” he shrugs. His hedonistic pursuit of extramarital pleasure – and, perhaps, solace – is barely veiled. (At one point he coos to a baby: “You know, I slept with both your parents,” an incongruously funny aside in an at times laboured script.) The suggestion is that Montealegre knew the man she was marrying in his entirety. Despite his infidelities, the connection between them runs so deep neither seems to fully grasp its extent. Like the tumultuous marriage at the heart of A Star Is Born, Cooper’s directorial debut, the two cannot live with or without each other.

Though Maestro sits firmly in the award-season favourite Serious Biopic genre, there is little of Bernstein’s childhood. Save for the Oedipal confession that as a child he fantasised about killing his father, he springs from that bed, aged 25, a fully formed musical genius. His social activism, too – protesting the Vietnam War, raising money for the Black Panthers’ defence – is absent. Apart from a suggestion that he change his surname to Burns, there is little of his Jewishness either (Bernstein twice conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra) – though the subject consumed the pre-release press. When the trailer, featuring Cooper, a gentile, wearing a prosthetic nose, was released, much was written about “Jewface”. It was a storm Maestro needn’t have brought on itself: Cooper inhabits Bernstein so completely that their physical differences hardly register. He strays from embodiment to imitation only in a too-nasal accent, but is otherwise every inch the charming, mercurial Bernstein, without a cigarette only when he is conducting.

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The casting of Mulligan as Montealegre, who was half Costa Rican, was also controversial – but thank God for it. Aren’t we tired of films solely about men whose cruelty we forgive on account of their brilliance? Maestro is Mulligan’s movie, and she is its roaring heart. The poise with which she holds sweetness, sacrifice, denial, love and rage within herself is exquisite.

The first half of the film, which follows Bernstein as a young man, has a distinctive visual language. Filmed in a boxy ratio in gleaming black and white, the cinematography (by long-time Darren Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique) has an old-Hollywood feel, with sweeping, dynamic shots, plus a La La Land-esque magical-realism dance scene. When the film enters the Seventies – and as the Bernsteins’ marital strife grows – the aspect widens, the film becomes golden-toned Technicolor, and the camera stills. In one of Maestro’s most devastating scenes, Montealegre tears into her faithless husband as a giant Snoopy drifts past the window – in a Thanksgiving parade – all in a single, unmoving shot.

Then, of course, there is the music: Bernstein’s compositions are woven throughout, including the playful use of West Side Story’s “Prologue” as Bernstein arrives at the family estate with his lover in tow. In a transcendent recreation of a 1973 performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Cooper doesn’t so much direct the music as swim in it. As applause resounds, he runs triumphant to Felicia, watching from the wings.

“Maestro” is in cinemas now

[See also: May December is a moral provocation disguised as soap opera]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now