Film: “Maestro” directed by and starring Bradley Cooper
Making a movie about Leonard Bernstein is a challenge. He was the original multitasker: a conductor, arranger, pianist, best-selling author and TV educator to millions.
He was also a serious composer, and while he enjoyed the fruits of his success from “West Side Story” and “On the Town”, LB long complained that he wished he could compose more when all the world wanted was more of his conducting.
While this is touched upon somewhat in “Maestro”, writer-director-star Bradley Cooper has instead emphasized LB’s personal life: particularly his troubled relationship with wife Felicia Montealegre (Carrie Mulligan), caused in large part by his attraction to men.
The movie starts off brilliantly. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Matthew Libatique, it captures the electrifying night in 1943 when Bruno Walter, conductor of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall falls ill, and assistant conductor LB takes over on very short notice. A lucky break that only seems to happen on Broadway stages and in 1930s Hollywood movies.
LB soon meets Felicia, a Chilean beauty, at a party and faster than you can say “Serge Koussevitsky,” they begin dating and sleeping together. The couple goes on to marry and raise three children: Jamie (Maya Hawke), Alexander (Sam Nivola), and Nina (Alexa Swinton). By the mid-1950s, LB and Felicia live an affluent life in the public eye, with an apartment in the Dakota, and a country home, as by this time LBhas composed several successful operas and Broadway musicals, including Candide and West Side Story.
At the same time. LB’s continued and indiscreet dalliances with men – as well as his alcohol and substance abuse – take a deep toll on their marriage. Nonetheless, the couple remains together until her death in 1978 from breast cancer. (FYI: LB passed away from a heart attack caused by mesothelioma in 1990.)
The tragedy, as presented in “Maestro,” is that Felicia takes a back seat to LB’s other priorities: his music, his affairs with men, and his throbbing egocentricity. This is unfortunate because Felicia seems to be one of the best parts of his life—and of the movie. While I have admired Mulligan ever since “An Education,” here she surpasses anything she’s done in film or theater. Case closed.
As LB, Cooper has the composer’s moves down to a tee. Despite sounding as if he has a bad cold, he captures the nervous tics, the rat-a-tat-tat speaking patterns, and the swooping, look-at-me gestures at the podium. (He does use the word “darling” an awful lot and smokes like a chimney—both revelations to me.) To his credit, Cooper also captures the guilt that must have plagued LB his whole life—as a husband who couldn’t give his wife the attention she deserved because he was too busy gratifying his own needs.
While all these bits and pieces are fine, and the acting uniformly terrific, the movie lacks a dramatic arc. This is not a biopic. It skips from event to event, focusing on all the things that made Bernstein a lousy husband rather than a genius. NYT music critic Zachary Woolfe puts it best: “I was disappointed to find his life as an artist depicted as less complex — and less interesting — than his life as a husband.”
The supporting cast is superb. Standouts include Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim, the violinist whom Lenny was seeing before he met Felicia; Sarah Silverman as Bernstein’s sister; Michael Urie as Jerome Robbins; and a host of other Broadway and off-Broadway actors that are always great to watch, even in a flawed movie like this.
Side note: I did enjoy the music played as the credits rolled at the end of “Maestro.” As some of you may have recognized, it’s the overture for Bernstein’s “Candide.” Both in the operetta and in the Voltaire novel, the character Pangloss says, “We must tend to our own gardens.” My great disappointment is that Cooper didn’t tend sufficiently to his.
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