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‘Maestro: Bradley Cooper’s Heartfelt Biopic Answers All The Little Questions and Skips The Big Ones (review)

During the second hour of Maestro, there’s a scene where Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein comforts his dying wife Felicia, then draws all three of their children into a group hug. One by one they fall into place… and yet even as his arms stretch ever wider around them, Cooper never once lets go of his cigarette.

I’m not kidding. It stays level the whole time, a minute at least. Shelley Duvall only wishes she could keep a cigarette ash hanging on for that long.

To me this scene summed up a lot of what’s going on in Bradley Cooper’s biopic of the late American composer-conductor. It’s a gutpunch moment in a movie that has no shortage of them. It underscores how Lenny never seemed able to stop conducting: even in a moment of intense grief, the kids don’t take a step forward until he gives them their cue.

It reveals just how much Bernstein had to be the sun around which everyone else orbited: although they’re meant to be comforting Mom, it’s Dad they put their arms around.

And then there’s that cigarette. Always the cigarette. It’s in enough scenes to get a SAG card. It’s right up there on the movie poster with the two leads. Even after Felicia gets her cancer diagnosis—even while he’s chiding her to stop smoking—he’s got one burning.

Although the real Felicia Montealegre was rarely seen without a cigarette in her hand, in Cooper’s version she only seems to pick up the habit after years of turning to ash in her husband’s radiance. Hard not to come to the conclusion that his smoke is what killed her. And yet he himself remains unharmed.

Maestro is basically the Icarus myth in reverse: this time, it’s the sun that flies too close.

The great over-arching theme of modern biopics—particularly the ones about musicians—is that fame always comes at a price. Sometimes fame is the price. Most of the time, that price is paid by someone else. In the case of Maestro, that someone is Felicia—played with humor, haute, and heartache by Carey Mulligan, a doe-eyed actress who is almost single-handedly keeping the mid-Atlantic accent alive. The movie’s opening scene shows an aging Bernstein telling a documentary crew that he occasionally sees Felicia’s ghost wandering the grounds of their country estate. We soon learn that, throughout her life, she’s usually the one who’s being haunted by him. He won’t keep her as close as she needs, and he’ll never set her free.

This kind of redemptive/obsessive love story might have put Maestro in the company of musical biopics like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Walk The Line if it wasn’t for one little problem that Doo Lynn and June Carter Cash never had to deal with. Bernstein’s sexual preference for men is never given a name—Felicia tells Lenny “I know who you really are” in exactly the way we all hope to hear those words from someone special—but the film deals head-on with Bernstein’s never-declared homosexuality as a familiar, if fraught, reality. Early on, Lenny gets called to conduct the New York Philharmonic… then, as he hangs up, he joyfully paddles the bottom of his sleeping boyfriend, David Oppenheim. Years later, he meets his former lover, now in the company of his wife and newborn baby. “I’ve slept with both your parents,” Lenny declares to the baby (and, apparently, everyone else walking by).

That Bernstein’s numerous infidelities (with both men and women, but mostly the former) were a trial to Felicia is an understatement… but this is not a story about a sham marriage. Instead it draws a sharp if tangled line between sex and love: as we see many times, Lenny’s passion for Felicia was real, soulful, emotional, physical… but not always sexual, and by no means exclusive. In one charged moment, she warns him that if he’s not careful he’ll die a bitter old queen (real-life Felicia actually said “a bitter old man”). Moments later they’re in a fierce embrace. As we see her grappling with Lenny’s deep contradictions—breaking it off, luring him back, turning away when she catches him with his lover Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick), chiding him not to tell the children, finally courting her own lover only to find that he shares her husband’s nature—we see her health and self-confidence crumble, and yet her adoration for her famous husband keeps burning brighter until it literally burns her out. It’s almost—almost—mutual: when he sees her in the audience at a concert, he rushes pull her into an aching embrace, so grateful that he nearly (but not quite) forgets to take his bows.

The concert scene stands out because it’s one of the few moments where you actually get to see Bernstein doing his day job. As he conducts Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony (in a cathedral, no less), Cooper channels the raw emotion, the athleticism, the sheer perspiration that made Bernstein a highbrow heartthrob for mid-century Americans. This was the Lenny I wanted to know. Although I was too young to watch his Young People’s Concert broadcasts, my older sisters assured me that he was their top crush until the Beatles and Bobby Sherman came along. I remember grooving heavily to my parents’ recordings of West Side Story and Mass, and in high school I exhausted my friends’ patience raving about Candide for an entire summer. There was something daring, something deeply American in Bernstein’s jazzy rhythms and cliff-diving melodies. Along with his idol George Gershwin and his lifelong friend Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein defined the sound of American classical music for a country that was starving for cultural identity.

And that is where Maestro started to slip out of my grasp.

The movie does a fantastic job of illustrating the thousand ways that Lenny kept his family hungry for his love: where it fails to deliver is how he kept America hungry for his music. In one poignant moment with his daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke), he nearly confirms the rumors of his sexuality, only to finally wriggle off the hook and dismiss them all as professional jealousy. As he relates to Jamie, when he was a boy a fellow student was so resentful of Lenny that he tried to shoot him (true, though somewhat tamped down—in reality, the student tried to shoot several of his schoolmates). So we learn that Bernstein was, or believed himself to be, a victim of lesser minds: but we never get to see their envy on display. There are no Salieris in this movie. Everybody loves Lennie, though we never really learn why. We just know we’re supposed to.

It’s not easy to show musical genius at work on film, though it has been done well. In Amadeus, we get to watch Mozart transform Salieri’s dinky march into a classic from The Marriage of Figaro. In Ray, we see Ray Charles build up “I Believe to My Soul” one track at a time.

The closest that Maestro gets to this is an early scene where Lenny takes Felicia to a performance of his ballet Fancy Free that exists only in his imagination (in this movie, reality frequently blends into fantasy without warning). One of the dancing sailors turns around… and it’s Lenny, dancing his own ballet just for her.

How is this possible? It isn’t.

How does it reveal Bernstein’s genius? It can’t.

Mainly because Cooper keeps pivoting away from Bernstein’s artistry to zero in on his personal foibles. We see Lenny with his family at the premiere of Mass, which in real life was a very big moment for him. It was his first “serious” composition after years in the doldrums, and it was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy herself to honor her late husband on the opening night of the Kennedy Center. But instead of letting us take in the significance of this occasion, Cooper builds the scene around the moment Lenny grabs his boyfriend’s hand instead of his wife’s.

All of this keeps us from getting close to Lenny. We know what it’s like to be with Bernstein, but not what it’s like to be him. Behind his charismatic presence, the real Leonard Bernstein nearly buckled under the weight of being America’s national Music Appreciation teacher—expectations, he said, that kept him from reaching his full potential as a composer. The script also ignores passions that mattered nearly as much to him as music, including his opposition to the Vietnam war, his support for Civil Rights, and above all his dedication to young musicians of color. This last one makes an appearance but it’s handled badly. We see him mentor a young Black conductor, only to discover it’s just the opening gambit in a teacher-student seduction.

Every time we’re on the verge of getting into Lenny’s head, Cooper pulls it down below the waist.

But a biopic is not a biography, and the story Cooper has chosen to tell is often subtle and powerful. The whole ensemble feels grounded and honest in their performances. The dialogue between Lenny and Felicia is so natural that it sometimes feels like you’re eavesdropping on a private conversation. There are moments that straddle the line between the real and surreal: while Lenny and Felicia are having a raw-nerved argument in their Manhattan apartment, the Snoopy balloon from the Macy’s parade is floating by.

There are other moments that probably played better in the pitch meetings than they do onscreen.

The decision to shift from black and white to color, then from the old academy aspect ratio to widescreen, announces the era in a way that doesn’t need to be announced. Martin Scorsese pulled off this trick in The Aviator, but that’s mainly because Scorsese is a freak about film stocks. Here it feels like a gimmick.

Which I guess is as good a moment as any to mention the nose.

Hard to believe that, just before the October 7 Hamas attacks, the biggest controversy dividing American Jews and gentiles was Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic shnozz: whether it was necessary for a serious portrayal of Leonard Bernstein, whether it perpetuated antisemitic stereotypes—indeed, whether a non-Jew should be playing Bernstein at all. His family blessed the nose (and the actor), while makeup designer Kazu Hiro assured everyone he was 100 per cent committed to nasal authenticity… then everything went to hell and now the whole debate seems depressingly nostalgic.

To my very gentile eyes, the fake nose does not demand a lot of attention, though I realize I’m not entitled to a vote on that. I would just as soon have left it out. It gets in the way: whenever Lenny starts kissing someone, you keep worrying that his partner will knock it askew. His face doesn’t need it. Cooper’s wig does a better job of capturing Lenny’s essence—a wild, leonine sweep of silver that never thinned, even in his final days. The age makeup in later scenes is perfect. It shows an aging Bernstein who’s roughened by time, but never undone.

Unfortunately we now have to talk about the nose plugs. It seems Cooper asked Hiro to craft some plugs that would broaden his nostrils and help him achieve Bernstein’s distinctive voice. Listen to any recording of Bernstein speaking and you will hear the voice that Cooper’s talking about: it’s clear, sonorous, gently musical, and it sounds nothing like Bradley Cooper with those plugs up his honker. They make him sound like Bernstein was suffering from a forty-year head cold (“Did you write a new song or something?” comes out as, “Didju ride a new so’g or somethig?”).

I left this movie still wondering why everyone needs to know what was going on in Leonard Bernstein’s marriage. The closest I can get is that qualities that are extraordinary in an artist can be dangerous in a partner, even if you love every moment of it. Bernstein conducted relationships the same way he conducted the New York Philharmonic: with love, and very precisely, and always in service of his own needs. Many of his musicians have said that his hands were so expressive, you felt as if he was speaking to you personally. Watching Cooper’s finely calibrated performance, that feeling definitely comes across. This Leonard Bernstein could play people. He could pull a complete stranger into an impassioned embrace. He could throw his children off the scent of his private life. He could even pull his wife back into the heart of a marriage where she could never expect to (as she herself says) survive on what little he had to give. The one thing he could not do was keep her alive.

Is this a great biopic? It’s really good.

Is it the one I hoped for? Not so much. That would have been a movie about a musician and his baton.

This is a movie about a man and his cigarette.

Judge for yourself which story is better to know.

  *  *  *  *  *
Produced by Martin Scorsese, Bradley Cooper, Steven Spielberg,
Fred Berner,  Amy Durning, Kristie Macosko Krieger

Written by Bradley Cooper, Josh Singer
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Vincenzo Amato,
Greg Hildreth, Michael Urie, Brian Klugman, Nick Blaemire, Mallory Portnoy,
Sarah Silverman, Yasen Peyankov. Zachary Booth, Miriam Shor, Maya Hawke

Maestro is Now Streaming on Netflix and Playing in Select Theaters
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