Film Review: Maestro
Director: Bradley Cooper
Sikelia Productions and Amblin Entertainment
In Theaters: 11.22
In Theaters (Salt Lake): 12.08
Bradley Cooper made such a spectacular impression with his 2018 directorial debut, A Star is Born, that there’s been considerable pressure to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Cooper’s much-heralded Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro is finally here to tell us whether a star has truly been truly born or if we were all simply going gaga over nothing.
In 1946, at an upscale New York house party, pianist, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper, sporting a controversial prosthetic nose) meets an actress named Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman). They hit it off immediately and become virtually inseparable, juggling busy careers with their growing love. The young couple become husband and wife in 1951 and raise three children together. Felicia becomes focused on being a mother and wife as Leonard’s star status rises, despite the antisemitism of the era that has many believing he can’t possibly be a premier conductor. He becomes exactly that, however, while also making a splash on Broadway. Leonard’s starry-eyed love for himself and his success, as well as his wandering eye for young, attractive men, drives a wedge into the relationship. When Felicia is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the devastating news brings them right back into each other’s loving arms to face the music together.
Maestro is a labor of love for Cooper, and there’s an uncanny parallel between these two immensely talented—and at times off puttingly self-involved artists—that makes him an inspired match to the material. The fusion of gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, intricate staging and Bernstien’s music (the only underscoring for the film) makes for a dazzling and delicious cinematic treat. It is, however, a musician biopic, and as such it falls victim to many of the pitfalls of the genre: struggling to tell a cohesive narrative, an unwieldy runtime and a subject whose personal shortcomings make him hard to receive at times.
Cooper’s creative vision and his conductor-like precision keep this cinematic symphony together, whether it’s sweeping crane shots, a delicious dance number that represents Leonard and Felicia falling in love or the impeccable timing of the rapid-fire dialogue. A few of Cooper’s choices do feel just a bit too on the prosthetic nose, however. A few examples include the following: unnecessarily shifting from black and white to color when the story enters the late ’60s, making Cooper’s heavy makeup job suddenly look far less convincing; the questionable taste of the artificially prominent proboscis itself; or the rather silly inclusion of a snippet of the R.E.M. classic It’s the End of the World As We Know It that features a mention of Berstien’s name. Still, the sheer passion that Cooper brings to this musical memoir makes it easy to forgive the places where he’s getting a bit lost in the notes.
As actor, Cooper gives a transformative performance. The spot-on mimesis, from the voice and accent to every last physical mannerism, could easily become impersonation rather than acting were it not for the actor’s patently expressive eyes and smile, which keep him grounded in the moment and in the humanity of the character, bringing an unflinching honesty and depth. Mulligan is enchanting, and if Leonard is the heart of the story, Felicia is its soul. The complexity of their relationship is touching, maddening and above all fascinating. Maya Hawke (Stranger Things) brings a natural radiance to the role of oldest daughter Jamie, and Sarah Silverman brings life and liability to Leonard’s sister Shirley.
Maestro is an ambitious piece that doesn’t quite hit every note, yet it’s hard not to be transfixed by the melody. It’s a heartfelt tribute that cements Cooper as a virtuoso behind the camera and in front of it. This sophisticated and thoughtful film is a mesmerizing portrayal of the need for acceptance, self expression and love, as well as the contrastingly fortifying and destructive nature of the obsessive pursuit of one’s passions and dreams. –Patrick Gibbs