2023, R, 129 min. Directed by Bradley Cooper. Starring Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, Gideon Glick, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 8, 2023
A titan of 20th century culture, back when regular folks actually knew the name of a conductor, Leonard Bernstein was also a composer, activist, teacher, and television fixture; he combined the latter two to unlock classical music for generations via his Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic. Actor/writer/director Bradley Cooper – triple duty again following his first feature, 2018’s A Star Is Born – taps into an instructional vein himself by starting his movie about Bernstein with a quote from him: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them.” The quote feels preemptive, a “how to read this film” cheat code and gesture at mollifying anyone who might gripe about Maestro’s lack of biographical bullet points or other traditional signposts of the biopic genre. But who wants bullet points, anyway, when you can have a dream ballet instead?
That dance happens about 30 minutes in, and by then you’ll know if Maestro – itself an ambitious and exuberant work of art– is to your taste. But the moment isn’t just showboating, or mere homage to a time when movies would stop dead in their tracks for dreamy dance sequences. It pirouettes off a rehearsal of Fancy Free (the 1944 ballet Bernstein scored and then turned into Broadway musical smash On the Town) which turns fantastical. The dance becomes illustrative of the tensions that will define Bernstein’s life and the scope of the film about him: the push-pull between his composing and his conducting; between his appetite for men and his love for the woman he eventually marries, Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan); between his authentic self and a public-facing persona others warn him will suffer if he doesn’t minimize his Jewishness, his homosexuality. From this bravura sequence, everything flows downstream, deepening our understanding of the man and the marriage. Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer take a symphonic approach to the material; Maestro unfurls in movements, shifting in force and feeling – forte, piano, espressivo. It moves.
Maestro is a technical wowzer, with the makeup, costume, and production design convincingly summoning the film’s sweep from the Forties to the late Eighties. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who won an Oscar for his work on A Star Is Born, cycles through black & white and color, depending on the era depicted, and a camera that swings from the rafters or arrives like a whisper, depending on the mood.
The sound design, though, is challenging. Between the chattering mid-Atlantic accents and the complication of actors speaking out of the side of their mouths around a cigarette, I reckon I missed 30% of the dialogue. (Remember Lenny: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them.” In my case, it was “Huh? Did you catch that?”) The score is plucked, appropriately, from Bernstein himself, including a laugh-out-loud music cue: When Felicia narrows her eyes at Bernstein’s much younger lover, we hear the brassy opening notes from West Side Story, forecasting a rumble. There are visual bemusements, too, as in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade reference so surreal and delightful, it must be pulled from real life.
Does it matter if it’s real? How close to the facts must a work of art cleave? Is photorealism a virtue, or a cage? Cooper drew ire when an early trailer revealed a large prosthetic nose, which detractors called antisemitic and Bernstein’s children defended, saying it was representative of their father’s “nice, big nose.” (The casting of Mulligan, a white British actress, to play a woman born in Costa Rica has also been decried.) Maestro provokes questions about representation – a worthy conversation – and certainly actors with closer lived experience might have brought something different to the roles. But what Cooper and Mulligan are doing here is extraordinary, delivering exquisitely stylized performances, as big as the screen they’re projected on. Her mesmerizing, musical laugh. His open face and a voice that sounds like a permanent head cold. We see the work, the figurative (and sometimes literal) sweat that went into crafting these characters. It’s capital-M Movie Acting, and I couldn’t love it more. It moved me.