Bradley Cooper, the formerly roguish thespian turned auteur, has returned with his second directorial feature, Maestro. Five years after A Star is Born, he tackles the true story of legendary composer, conductor and American treasure Leonard Bernstein.
The film charts Bernstein’s (Cooper) rise from assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic to one of the most decorated musicians of the 20th century. It’s also an intimate portrayal of the strained relationship with his wife of 27 years, actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).
Their loquacious meet cute at a party of Second World War-era theatre kids kickstarts an epic and tumultuous love affair, later pushed to its limits by Bernstein’s astronomical success and his various infidelities.
Through economical, yet not conservative direction, along with playful use of black-and-white film photography and the Academy ratio, Maestro establishes itself as a visually enthralling production.
Cooper employs gently forced perspectives, daring transitions and a dream-like musical sequence as tribute to MGM musicals to boot. Though the first half of the film is monochrome, it is coloured by the whimsical grandeur captured through cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s viewfinder.
On his last outing, Cooper and collaborators outclassed Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s prior attempt at that great Hollywood tragedy. Here, however, in place of what should’ve been a portrait of a genius on fire is a well-trodden tale of llove lacking romance and misguided matrimony.
The film mostly chronicles Montealegre’s quiet frustrations at Bernstein’s indiscretions and the rumours that dog their children as they grow up. The oblique dialogue, overly philosophical and full of oddly meta pontification on character motives, serves only to distance the viewer from the drama.
We’ve seen this before in other musical biopics, like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman: the plight of a queer, hedonistic superstar who can only seem to get their music right.
Overly occupied with realizing his potential, Cooper forgoes genuine insight into what made Bernstein a cultural giant. His towering achievements serve as convenient story beats. Bernstein’s completion of the opus Mass in 1971 merely serves as a symbol to dwarf his marital success.
Maestro is myopic in scope, like a dramatization of a Vanity Fair exposé on his private life. As a biography, it wholly fails to contextualize Bernstein’s achievement. The emotional depth of the story of Jackson and Ally Maine is only intimated.
The much-vaunted climax, in which Bernstein feverishly conducts Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973, fails. It’s pointedly the first extended sequence of creativity demonstrated by Bernstein. Given the picture’s disinterest in the actual music beyond general dressing, your typical Netflix surfer (and this reviewer) will have only Bugs Bunny’s turn with the baton for reference.
Maestro is just as confused but never nearly as versatile as the man it honours. Bernstein was a tireless activist and philanthropist. He scored the eternal classic On the Waterfront. He conducted John F. Kennedy’s pre-inaugural gala and televised memorial.
In the legend of Camelot, Bernstein was a maestro of both overture and coda. Why not show that, for Bach’s sake? Maestro ain’t a total bum, but it could’ve been a real contender.
Published in Volume 78, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 10, 2024)