Some actors hit a point in their careers where they say, “Hey, man – all I really want to direct.” Sometimes they’re lucky and lightning strikes. But for every Clint Eastwood, there’s a George Clooney—that actor who nailed it once (in this case with Good Night, and Good Luck) only to deliver one nothingburger after another. Actor-directors too often display a fixation on proving oneself as a director at the expense of challenging oneself as an actor, delivering a period of relatively forgettable work behind the camera without reminding audiences why they love the star’s power in front of it. Refreshingly, that’s not the case with Bradley Cooper.
Any worries that Cooper might be the next George Clooney or, worse, Kevin Costner in the one-hit-wonder actor-turned-director department needn’t worry. Cooper follows his outstanding directorial debut A Star Is Born with the virtuosic Maestro. His confidence as a director is assured. Moreover, as an actor, he’s never been better than he is here while inhabiting iconic composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. It’s a turn destined for biopic canon in a film that defies biopic conventions.
Maestro might not be the knockout that A Star Is Born is—it’s hard to beat the pipes of Lady Gaga—but it’s arguably more exciting as a directorial effort. If A Star Is Born shows Cooper’s hand at sturdy, conventional studio filmmaking, the ambitious Maestro offers hints at an auteur’s oeuvre. The film has as much care for biopic convention as Fellini’s 8½ does, although Cooper’s fault might be how much he cribs stylistically from the Italian maestro. His sophomore effort is nevertheless an exciting showpiece full of cinematic movements that explore Bernstein’s life, loves, and music. And does the bombast of it all ever sound great in a movie theatre!
If You Please…
Cooper, working with screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) also doesn’t pander. Despite Bernstein’s significant oeuvre, he doesn’t signpost Maestro with greatest hits, moments of inspiration, or essential works. Viewers bringing expectations might be less pleased than those approaching Bernstein with a clean slate might. His groundbreaking film score for On the Waterfront, for example, only receives a passing mention from a talk show host. West Side Story gets a musical cue, a few references, and a flyby appearance by Jerome Robbins (played by Michael Urie). Fans of West Side Story might scratch their heads and wonder why Bernstein’s contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet receives less screentime than, say, a single Mahler performance. But that’s the thrill of Maestro: the whole thing is West Side Story upon closer inspection.
The film favours Bernstein’s personal life over his professional one, to an extent, as numerous scenes explore the musician’s double life as a gay man who married a woman. Early scenes show him in bed with a lover as the camera pulls back to reveal a man. He lives with two men—a pioneer of the throuple?—and has a passionate relationship with David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), who would record some of his work and actually marry actress Judy Holliday. But as Bernstein develops his relationship with his eventual wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), the many scenes of whispers, betrayals, and broken hearts are the backstory for his visionary work. Put another way, one part of Leonard Bernstein plays with the Sharks and the other goes with the Jets.
Sharks vs. Jets
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for West Side Story might say, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way,” but going all-in wasn’t so easy in the 1950s. Maestro dramatizes the double lives people had to lead—triple lives when they’re public figures—as Bernstein plays for both gangs, so to speak. But what begin as innocent friendships yield to betrayals as Felicia watches her their marriage suffer public slip-ups, gossip, and, nights spent alone. Bernstein brings his boy-toy Tommy (Gideon Glick) to family gatherings. Worse, when the three of them attend a concert of Bernstein’s latest composition, it’s Tommy’s hand that Leonard clutches while Felicia looks on. The tension is fiercer than that of any street gang standoff.
The thrill of Maestro, though, is Cooper’s seamless interpretation Bernstein’s life and work. A great sequence, for example, imagines the creation of On the Town as Bernstein dons a sailor suit and shakes his derrière with the male dancers on stage. It’s not the least bit campy, but rather sad and inspiring with equal measure as Cooper shows how artists like Bernstein coded their work to realise desires that they couldn’t express in public. The playful, imaginative sequence, shot in striking black-and-white, contrasts beautifully with the melodramatic interiors of the Bernstein’s home and private life in later years, or the sharply composed sequences that capture the maestro’s mastery on the podium with cinematography so crisp that one sees every bead of sweat dribble off Cooper’s face.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique masterfully captures the scope and ambition of this project with cinematic grandeur. Maestro is appropriately showy work. Visually, it’s an accomplished work of filmmaking that understands the craft of visual storytelling, but also the layers and nuances of sound, making for both a cinematic and thrillingly sonic study of Bernstein’s impact.
Grand Emotional Beats
Besides providing unexpected impressions of the relationship between Bernstein’s life and work, Maestro accentuates the bravado of the musician’s pieces. Extended sequences show Bernstein conducting an orchestra—with Cooper doing all his own meticulously researched and rehearsed movements. These overtures allow the music to swell. They provide the experience of what it’s like to attend a Bernstein concert as the music vibrates with emotion. Maestro isn’t a biopic that provides names and dates. It’s a movie that makes one feel the impact of its subject’s work.
It helps, too, that Cooper and Mulligan fully commit to their performances and ensure that the Bernsteins’ story is a deeply moving affair. Maestro affords Felicia refreshing agency and, in doing show, makes clear that this is no vanity project from Cooper—it’s a genuinely empathetic portrait of fellow artists. With top billing and generous screentime, Mulligan gives a soulful performance as Felicia that honours her own talents as an artist, but also underscores her own losses and heartaches that came with Bernstein’s need to live a double life. What Mulligan and Cooper do quite brilliantly here, though, is convey how, through all the hardships of the Bernsteins’ marriage, there’s genuine, palpable love until the end. It’s a moving tale of star-crossed lovers who found their own way to align.