Editor’s note, Dec. 20, 2023: This piece was published when Maestro premiered. We’re resurfacing it now that the movie is streaming on Netflix.
The old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall—practice, practice, practice—gets a witty revision early on in Maestro. For Leonard Bernstein, headlining New York’s toniest marquee is less about blood, sweat, and tears than a combination of blind luck and real genius. In a carefully composed prologue shot in gleaming early ’40s black and white, we watch the young musical prodigy—already an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic at 25—bound joyously out of bed with his bodaciously muscled lover (Matt Bomer) after getting the call to take over an important concert for an ailing colleague. His exuberance is almost cartoonish, and it cues a magical-realist flourish by which his apartment hallway seems to lead directly to the proscenium, where he instantly makes himself comfortable.
The stage was Lenny’s home away from home, and the image of him at the podium, wielding his baton like a wizard’s staff, is an evocative emblem of American high culture. Few artists loved the spotlight so intensely, and of all the expensive, star-studded slabs of prestige cinema portraiture dropping this fall—from Napoleon to Priscilla to Ferrari—Maestro is probably the one with the greatest sense of showmanship. It’s also easily the least ambivalent: Instead of subverting, revising, or exploding biopic conventions, Bradley Cooper’s film embraces them, warmly, like lost friends.
Cooper is not an austere filmmaker. His remake of A Star Is Born is the sort of old-fashioned tearjerker that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, not because the form is passé, but because few mainstream directors are shameless (and ruthless) enough to pull it off. The story goes that no less than Steven Spielberg ceded the idea of a Bernstein biopic after seeing A Star Is Born: “[Spielberg] walks over, I’m putting my head down, and the next thing I feel is his face,” Cooper told Stephen Colbert in January 2022. “He said, and it’s loud, ‘You’re [expletive] directing Maestro,’ and then he sat back down, and it was amazing.” Cooper’s first great role was as Camp Firewood’s reigning musical theater fan in Wet Hot American Summer, and in interviews, the theater kid in him jumps out: He recently told CBS Mornings that he asked Santa Claus for a baton when he was 8 years old and that conducting an orchestra has been his life’s dream; meanwhile, the story that he spent six years practicing his subject’s craft to nail the six-minute sequence in Maestro in which Bernstein conducts Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony might be the best award season anecdote since Lady Gaga’s “100 people in a room” bit. Any question of whether the film works begins with its director’s frenzied, Method performance: a skillful yet wearying tour de force of giggly, googly-eyed gregariousness pushed to the brink of camp by controversial prosthetics that transform Cooper’s golden-boy profile into something more iconically hawkish.
Taken in small doses, Cooper’s no-holds-barred intensity can be compelling and even brilliant; think of his powder keg cameo as ’70s Hollywood heel Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza, which goes a long way toward giving that film its kinetic sense of energy. As the centerpiece of a two-hour film, though, Cooper at full tilt is A Lot. Ultimately, the only thing to do with acting this over-cranked is give it an Oscar nomination and hope the guy settles down. Not that Bernstein was exactly a subtle presence: A Harvard-educated striver whose prodigious output built a bridge between high and mass culture (exemplified by his score for West Side Story), he was a spectacular narcissist, a living symbol of urbane, chain-smoking sophistication whose gravitational pull was akin to a small planet’s. Not many classically oriented musicians were famous enough to be spoofed on an Elmo album or immortalized by R.E.M., who cast Bernstein as a star witness to the apocalypse in “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” (he was more recently celebrated for mentoring the young Lydia Tár). As an activist and philanthropist who frequently leveraged his A-list connections for left-wing causes, Bernstein placed himself squarely at the epicenter of the celebrity phenomenon that Tom Wolfe famously termed “radical chic.” His personal life, meanwhile, was a double one, balanced precariously between the cozy, father-knows-best persona he cultivated in his 27-year marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn and a defiant, mostly uncloseted promiscuity that continued past her death from lung cancer in 1978.
As a character study, Maestro is relatively compact, eschewing any focus on Bernstein’s childhood and concentrating instead on his courtship and subsequently complicated and loving relationship with Felicia (Carey Mulligan). They’re introduced to each other during Lenny’s first rush of fame following the premiere of the Broadway hit On the Town (which Cooper recreates in a fantasy sequence that briefly transforms the composer into one of his own fast-stepping seamen), and their early scenes capture the heady rush that goes with discovering a kindred spirit. Their platonic affection has a degree of sexual heat to it, and the movie, which is being released with the support of the couple’s adult children, never suggests that theirs was solely a marriage of convenience. Rather, Cooper focuses on how stubbornly the pair clung to each other even as it became apparent that Lenny’s appetites were bigger than the two of them. “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them,” reads an opening title card, a quote that draws a bead not only on Bernstein’s creative practice—his obsession with fusing tradition and modernity—but also on the passionately confused impulses of the woman who spent her life at his side and also in his shadow, as if she felt it was where she belonged.
Where Cooper’s casting is inevitable, Mulligan’s is a bit curious: For all of her skills, she doesn’t exactly scream “Chilean Costa Rican American starlet.” What she does do, though, is convince us that Felicia loves Lenny not in spite of his indiscretions but because of them. She’s attracted to the sheer size of his life force and comes to terms with her inability—and unwillingness—to contain it. Her best scenes are edged with something sharper: the frustration of having to compete not only with Lenny’s lovers, but also against his protean talent, which dwarfs her own efforts at stardom. But because Felicia is a true aesthete and not a hipster or an opportunist, she knows beauty when she sees it, and her ability to reconcile Lenny’s very ordinary—and even boring—imperfections with his extraordinary gifts creates an interesting, inverted spin on the usual monstrous artist rhetoric. In lieu of a woman emancipating herself from a husband who would betray her, Cooper has made a meditation on the malleability of love, a quality that bends two ways as Lenny steps up to become his partner’s caregiver later in life.
It would take a more stringent script than the one Cooper’s written with Josh Singer to fully drain the sequences detailing Felicia’s illness of clichés, but he’s a good enough director to draw out a few genuine, tender emotions anyway—a point of view shot taken through the dying woman’s bedroom window shivers with empathy. On a technical level, Maestro is as proficient as A Star Is Born, with similarly adroit cinematography by Matthew Libatique; like Christopher Nolan in Oppenheimer, Cooper switches color schemes and aspect ratios not just to differentiate between eras in his subject’s life but to express something about Bernstein’s interior. The black-and-white sequences are narrowly framed to suggest a society where certain desires have to be held close to the chest, while the switch to full-color wide screen halfway through opens things up for the characters and the viewers. The Mahler sequence, which unfolds in the space of a single, sinuous camera movement, is an obvious standout, capturing a moment when character and actor seem to fuse on a molecular level; it’s undeniably impressive, even as it reeks of effort. Elsewhere, however, Cooper’s choices are bizarre, bordering on bewildering, as in a passage at Bernstein’s secluded Tanglewood estate that uses one of the composer’s most famous pieces as background music, a WTF needle drop that’s later topped (if that’s the right word) by a club scene that skirts the line between daring sincerity and unintentional parody.
Criticizing a movie about Leonard Bernstein for going over the top might be missing the point. Maybe it takes a maximalist to know one. And yet Maestro is ultimately a bit too in love with its own virtuosity; it never suggests a perspective much beyond awed admiration. Cooper’s love for his subject is obvious, but it’s also monotonous; without a sliver of critical distance, all that adulation becomes indistinguishable from self-congratulation. The result is a movie whose virtues are real but weirdly alienating: a crowd-pleaser that ultimately doesn’t need a crowd.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.