In several respects, Leonard Bernstein was a man split in two. Dreaming of becoming the first great American conductor but finding more success as a composer for Broadway musicals, he also struggled with his sexuality, marrying a woman he loved but regularly cheating on her with men. His life was a balancing act, his ego pulling him in different directions—between self-fulfillment and self-preservation, self-interest and altruism. So perhaps it makes sense that Bradley Cooper—cowriter, director, and star of the Bernstein biopic Maestro—seems to be wrestling between reverence for his subject and a need to prove himself.
Maestro has an unabashedly operatic style, from its visual language to its performances. From the start, director of photography Matthew Libatique (who already worked with Cooper on the actor’s wildly successful directing debut, A Star Is Born) juggles between über-intimate close-ups and dramatic camera angles and movements. As young Bernstein learns that he will get to conduct the New York Philharmonic at the last minute that same evening, he rushes out of bed, leaving his male lover there, to take in the view of the empty auditorium of Carnegie Hall, the camera sweeping before him, the huge space dwarfing him. Bernstein’s extravagance is mirrored in the camerawork. Yet even this inciting moment doesn’t entirely work—the too-smooth digital look of that camera movement juts against the analog authenticity of the movie’s black-and-white color scheme. And that’s just the first of many stylistic—perhaps even hubristic—leaps through which Cooper tries to bring together Bernstein’s private and public lives.
Cooper had been working on bringing Maestro to the screen since 2018, but in his Variety “Actors on Actors” interview with Emma Stone, he explained how he’d been passionate about conducting since childhood, pretending to conduct to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Opus 35 in D Major” for hours. He’d had “years and years of rehearsal inside of [him],” he said, or at least a burning desire to play such a character for a long time. All of this is very evident in how particular Cooper’s choices and points of focus are. Combining Bernstein’s art and his more ambiguous real life in an impressionistic medley in which the walls between stage and home disappear, Cooper aims for something both raw and almost dreamlike, but the final result feels overdetermined, at once too polished and not precise enough. In his own acting as Lenny (as everyone called Bernstein), Cooper reaches for an extreme kind of realism and imitation, adopting the gestures, voice tics, and wrinkles of his protagonist in such a committed way that the prosthetic nose, in this context, almost doesn’t stand out so much. What does, however, is the effort required, and not just of Cooper, but of everyone involved.
As a filmmaker, Cooper seems to have been very concerned with recreating the buzzing, bohemian atmosphere and way of being that Bernstein and his fellow artists shared, with scenes of artists talking passionately about music and movies and singing around a piano until the small hours. But he’s only captured an idea of what that energy must have been like—the overlapping exchanges and full-throated laughter often feel forced and mechanical, bereft of any sense of true, underlying connection. Lenny’s meet-cute with his eventual wife, Felicia (Carey Mulligan), plays like two people quipping with themselves rather than speaking to each other. And by being so committed to nailing such specific beats, Cooper misses the things that actually matter: the composer’s warmth; his benevolence; the pleasure that radiated through him when he would relish in his passion.
What Maestro does capture is the sense of two people sharing a life together. Smartly avoiding the usual traps of the biopic, Cooper focuses on Lenny and Felicia’s relationship, in small stolen moments and a few major turning points. These intimate scenes help paint a picture of what happiness looked like for the Bernsteins. But Cooper’s fluctuation between frankness and artistic suggestion ends up making their struggle amorphous and mysterious. We find again the fast progression through changes that was also present in A Star Is Born, but that in that film wasn’t as frustrating, perhaps because we understood that the degradation of the couple’s relationship was largely due to Jackson Maine’s alcoholism. Maestro also faces a greater challenge than A Star Is Born, in that its real-life couple did not meet a classically tragic end—they actually reconciled despite the strain that Bernstein’s disavowal of his sexuality put on their marriage. The answers and conclusions of this story are much more complicated—a level of nuance to which Cooper’s deconstructed and flamboyant approach can’t rise. The subtleties of Bernstein’s life are only glimpsed, as though Cooper couldn’t choose between showing the real person and paying homage to the artist. But this man’s troubles weren’t an acting exercise for him, nor were they for Felicia, whose cancer diagnosis is exploited for maximum pathos.
Cooper does seem to truly love Bernstein’s work, and his focus on the artist’s conducting makes for some beautiful and impressive moments. Even those, however, appear more like personal challenges for Cooper to conquer than instances of musical excellence intended for the viewer. In A Star Is Born, Cooper seemingly understood that the film needed Lady Gaga’s presence and musical talent in order to function. The duets between Jackson and Ally were rousing because they showed the intimacy and connection the two shared. In that same conversation with Emma Stone, Cooper explained his decision to rerecord all the music that Bernstein conducted or created: “I knew that if I put his music in the movie, then that would do everything that a biopic would ever do anyway—if you want to learn about Martin Scorsese, you just watch all his films, rather than watch an interview.” Thus, for Cooper, the challenge of conducting six minutes of Mahler’s “2nd Symphony” at Ely Cathedral as Bernstein represented an opportunity to try to recapture the artistic essence of Bernstein and share it with the viewer, as though to become a vehicle for it. But is such a thing even possible, especially when we’re talking about the sheer artistic expression of a person? Unlike the couple at the center of A Star Is Born, Cooper’s Bernstein feels detached from his surroundings—and while some of that makes sense for a man so unsure about his own identity, it doesn’t justify the distance one feels between him and his audience. Cooper wanted to literally become Bernstein, but he worked so hard at it that he seemingly forgot why he—himself, but also Bernstein—wanted to make music in the first place.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.