The holidays are fast approaching, which means it’s time for Hollywood A-listers to adopt thick accents (and don even thicker prosthetics) to re-enact the lives of historical celebrities in the pursuit of awards season glory. This year alone, we have had Oppenheimer and Napoleon and are staring down the barrel of Ferrari, Priscilla, Rustin, and Bob Marley: One Love, each promising to grapple with the challenge of effectively capturing an entire human life in the span of two multiplex-friendly hours (and in a manner sanctioned by their subjects’ estates and living relatives). Bradley Cooper – star of The Hangover trilogy-turned blockbuster auteur – throws his hat into the ring with Maestro, an adoring albeit uninventive biopic of the renowned American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918–90).
We meet Bernstein (played by Cooper) in 1943 (and in sumptuous 4:3 black-and-white photography) on the day he is summoned, at very short notice, to conduct for the New York Philharmonic, throwing him into the cultural spotlight and into the orbit of aspiring actress Felicia Montealegre (the perpetually wry, always effective Carey Mulligan). Maestro takes its time establishing their relationship – one of deep affinity and mutual appreciation – while also depicting Bernstein’s conflicting entanglements with various men, including clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Montealegre bemoans the world’s insistence that people be ‘only one thing’, and suggests that Bernstein’s sexuality needn’t stop them from sharing a life together.
From there, we progress through decades, colour palettes, aspect ratios, and child actors, as Bernstein’s star grows brighter, his affairs become less discreet, and his marriage buckles under the resulting strain. Maestro seems to want to set itself apart from standard biopic fare by focusing less on its subject’s professional output and more on his fragile domesticity, and it has a genuine sense of care, curiosity, and warmth for its characters. This film is obviously a labour of love for Cooper, who performs quadruple duty as writer, director, producer, and lead performer.
The only problem is, he’s done it all before. As an explication on the tension between career ambition and personal fulfilment, Cooper’s previous film, A Star Is Born (2018), was more dynamic, more insightful, and somehow even more honest than Maestro – despite being an entirely fictional story. This follow-up feels strained by comparison, a well-intentioned but somewhat out-of-touch stretch by a gifted director trying to slip into the prestige-drama shoes of his esteemed forebears (the film is produced by both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg). Maestro’s efforts to square away its lead character’s queerness, while admirable at first, ultimately treat it as another ingrained character flaw that must be overcome for the sake of a more pure, more beneficial love. And the script’s determination to focus on Bernstein’s home life over his creative achievements leaves us with a disproportionately detailed impression of him as a husband and father, but precious little sense of him as an artist.
Credit where credit is due, though: Cooper and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, certainly know how to compose for 4:3 – unlike the glut of trend-seeking directors currently opting for Academy ratio – and Maestro features some stunning compositions and camera movements. Bernstein’s own music (both composed and conducted) functions as the score, and we are treated to a riveting rendition of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony during a famous 1973 performance at Ely Cathedral in England, which the film treats as its musical climax. The period production design from Kevin Thompson is seamless, and Mark Bridges’ costumes effortlessly carry us through the shifting eras. Kazu Hiro, responsible for Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning jowls in Darkest Hour (2018), provides some of the most life-like ‘old age’ prosthetic make-up ever seen, allowing Cooper to portray Bernstein from the age of twenty-five through to seventy – although Cooper himself seems so eager to convey his subject’s overwhelming charm and garrulousness that his performance rarely leaves room to connect on any material level with his co-stars.
In the pantheon of movies about Great and Troubled Men, the road to success is often paved with underwritten wives – one-time objects of affection doomed to stand between a titular hero and their dreams. In this sense, Carey Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre fares better than most, and the film seems genuinely invested in exploring the experience of somebody living in the reflected glow – or perhaps the shadow – of a universally renowned and beloved public figure (though I suspect Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla will have even more to say on the matter). Even when it falls back on the weary clichés of rise-and-fall biopic narratives, Maestro offers a refreshingly holistic stance on the intersection of art and love. All too often, these stories tell us that you must choose between interpersonal connection and professional success. Maestro argues, in handsomely rendered and occasionally compelling terms, that you can’t have one without the other.
Maestro (Netflix Original) appeared in preview as part of the Jewish International Film Festival and will stream on Netflix from December 20.