Leonard Bernstein’s passion for music—and particularly for music that was passionate, such as Gustav Mahler’s—was exuberant and infectious. America’s first internationally renowned conductor was also a composer of daunting range, whose works include three symphonies, the landmark musical West Side Story (1957), and the score for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954).
For a while back in the 2010s, there were at least two biopics in the works, and Martin Scorsese was attached to one of them. When he opted to make The Irishman (2019) instead, Scorsese handed the project to Steven Spielberg, who cast Bradley Cooper as Bernstein. Cooper asked Spielberg if he might show him an early cut of his own directorial debut, A Star Is Born (2018), and at a crucial—and loud—point in the screening, Spielberg got up, walked over to Cooper, and shouted, “You’re fucking directing Maestro!”
When Maestro premiered in competition in Venice last month, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri noted that Carey Mulligan gets first billing. “And she deserves it,” he wrote. “As Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre, she has to absorb, attract, shield, and parry every loving embrace and slight from her brilliant husband. It’s a reactive performance, and Mulligan plays it with a heartbreaking universality. Yes, she’s doing an accent and ‘a part,’ much like Cooper is. But we connect with her in ways that we don’t with him. As Bernstein, Cooper’s performance is a masterful reconstruction, but it remains a reconstruction, earthbound and cool to the touch.”
Dispatching to the Notebook, Leonardo Goi agreed, calling Cooper’s performance “effortful; one is never not aware of his thousand decisions about gestures and inflections. The conspicuous flaunting of technique is the reason why his work will probably slingshot him to the front seats of the awards race; it is also why Maestro feels doused in formaldehyde—not a resurrection, but a still life.”
But for Time’s Stephanie Zacharek,Maestro is “the kind of grown-up love story we see all too rarely these days . . . This isn’t just a story about a selfish, eminently likable genius (though it’s partly that); it’s a picture that dives into the not-fully knowable complexities of love and desire. When it ends, you might feel both elated and slightly bereft. It’s a picture that gives you something you didn’t know you needed.”
Cowritten with Josh Singer (Spotlight), Maestro takes viewers from the bed of Bernstein’s lover (Matt Bomer) to his big break at Carnegie Hall; his first electric encounter with Felicia, a Broadway actress, at a party thrown by his sister (Sarah Silverman); and through infidelities and the birth of three children up to Felicia’s diagnosis: terminal cancer. “Cooper’s directorial style, right until the graceful slowdown of the concluding chapters,” writes Jessica Kiang for Sight and Sound, “is to drop us mid-sentence into conversations and in-jokes, all go-go-go, chatter and sparkle and Lenny flinging himself from one affair to another, interacting with interviewers and strangers and old acquaintances alike, with a familiarity that insinuates that there is so much more to this relationship than meets his winking, laughing eye.”
“With returning cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Cooper has made the mind- and eye-boggling decision to shoot and stage Maestro’s two halves in completely different styles,” notes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Happily, both are gorgeous. The early portions of Bernstein’s adult life are captured in glittering black and white, and played in the style of an urbane comedy from classical Hollywood, with Cooper suavely tripping around the place like Herbert Marshall. Then, as the plot leaps forward to the late 1960s, the vibe switches to the heightened naturalism of Robert Altman: rich autumnal colors, overlapping dialogue and shot compositions of almost cubist complexity.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney suggests that what may be “the most crucial craft contribution is the enveloping sound design, making you hear famous Bernstein works like his epic-scale Mass, his opera A Quiet Place, or his magnificent overture to Candide as if for the first time.”
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson observes that while Maestro “confronts queerness head on, it is curiously silent on Bernstein and (perhaps especially) Montealegre’s political activism. The famous Black Panther Party event Montealegre held at the family’s apartment in 1970, which led to the writer Tom Wolfe sneeringly coining the term ‘radical chic,’ is not mentioned at all in the film. Nor are any of the couple’s other noble causes. One gets the queasy impression that Cooper wants to keep his film free of those particular complications, lest they too rigidly define and contextualize these two lovers so fiercely vying for our affection.”
Maestro now heads to the Spotlight program in New York and then to festivals in Zurich,London, and Mill Valley before closing AFI Fest in Los Angeles on October 29. Netflix will open the film in a few theaters over the Thanksgiving holidays and then begin streaming it on December 20.
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