November 23, 2023
“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”
This quote by Leonard Bernstein flashes before Maestro commences. It’s a mission statement for writer/director/producer/star Bradley Cooper, who’s made it his life’s work to bring this story to the silver screen. It’s a warning to any Bernstein acolytes who come to this seeking untold answers about the famed conductor’s artistry. And it’s also a blessing to anyone bemoaning another musician biopic, the likes of which have haunted our multiplexes the past few years with their cookie-cutter rise-and-fall stories.
There is nothing cookie-cutter about Maestro, which is its absolute greatest strength… and occasional weakness. Cooper is like a high school theater kid who’s just landed the role he’s always dreamed of, so giddy and overstimulated that he’s almost leaping off the screen. It’s almost too showy, making the Old Hollywood aesthetic and mountains of makeup and prosthetics feel like even more of an illusion than it already is. Of course, the creative talent being too passionate about their work is near the bottom of the list of problems a film can have. It’s also how Cooper sees himself tethered to Bernstein: two geniuses who often became overwhelmed with passionate joy in their craft.
Lenny is just an upstart assistant conductor at the beginning of the movie, but his legend becomes born when he’s summoned at the last minute to replace the sickly guest conductor. Hearing his name during the loudspeaker announcements is what gives him the most pleasure, a small sign of how highly this man viewed himself. It’s hard to blame someone for seeing himself next to God when he has been blessed with such talent. A wide variety of music constantly pours out of him: musical theater (at one point it’s mentioned he’s working on a Romeo and Juliet story with Jerry Robbins, I wonder what that could be?), film scores, classical pieces, and everything in between.
Cooper’s filmmaking is just as confident and classical as Bernstein’s musical arrangements. It possesses great power to evoke a film made during the 1940s, complete with stark black-and-white and technicolor-infused Academy ratio cinematography. Reteaming after A Star Is Born, DP Matthew Libatique is in lockstep with Cooper’s direction, creating sweeping scenes through long takes and impeccable framing. It all crescendos at the Ely Cathedral in 1973 when Bernstein famously conducted Mahler’s second symphony, “Resurrection.” It’s spiritually transcendent, the camera capturing every enrapturing moment as it weaves its way through the choir and orchestra. The inescapable mantra during the film’s press tour is that Cooper prepped for this scene for six years, which is quite evident in the final product. Fortunately for him (and us), Netflix is committed to a substantial theatrical rollout (at least to their standards), offering audiences the chance to see this moment in the proper setting.
This moment isn’t all about Bernstein though, as the final camera movement during the impressive long take pans to reveal his wife Felicia Montealerge (Carey Mulligan) standing off to the side, ready for Lenny to walk over and embrace her after his performance. It’s emblematic of how Cooper frames this entire biopic, the music and their relationship always intertwined. The pair are magnificent together at every turn; with a jovial banter during the early stages, and a more mature understanding during the middle periods of their marriage. While Felicia is sidelined later in life as Lenny continues his affairs with younger men, Mulligan maintains her placement front and center through sheer emotion and her ability to elevate past the typical “tortured wife of a great man” role.
For something that has and will continue to be labeled as “Oscar bait,” Maestro is, more than anything, a confidently unique entry in a well-worn genre. It makes A Star Is Born seem like only the appetizer, and this is the main course. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to label Cooper as this generation’s Warren Beatty: a movie star interested in grown-up stories whose oversized ambition is matched by their incredible skill both in front and behind the camera. If there’s anything modern cinema needs more of right now, it’s someone like that.