Maestro, a new film directed by Bradley Cooper, is set to release in select theaters on November 22 and will be available for streaming on Netflix starting December 20. I had the opportunity to watch an early screening of the film at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival, and I must say that Maestro is a captivating and masterfully executed piece of filmmaking.
The film revolves around the life of Leonard Bernstein, portrayed brilliantly by Bradley Cooper himself. One recurring element throughout the movie is Bernstein’s constant companion – a cigarette. Whether he’s playing the piano, talking on the phone, engaging with fans, or being interviewed, the cigarette is always within reach. It serves as a coping mechanism for Bernstein, a way to distract himself from the pressure and expectations placed upon him. This seemingly insignificant detail, expertly portrayed by Cooper, speaks volumes about Bernstein’s character and mindset. Cooper’s addictive portrayal of Bernstein’s smoking habit, along with Carey Mulligan’s melancholic elegance as Felicia Montealegre-Cohen, Bernstein’s wife, creates a stark contrast that beautifully captures the complexity of their relationship.
Cooper’s directorial style in Maestro has undoubtedly matured since his previous film, A Star Is Born. With Maestro, he takes creative liberties that pay off immensely. The film ingeniously uses the language of cinema, along with Bernstein’s extensive musical catalog, to craft an intricate and intimate portrait of this American icon and the woman who played a pivotal role in his life.
The film unfolds in two distinct parts. The first part, presented in black and white reminiscent of movies from 1943, depicts a pivotal moment in Bernstein’s career. At the age of 25, he is unexpectedly called upon to lead the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Cooper’s immersive performance captures the excitement and childlike wonder of Bernstein as he takes on this monumental opportunity. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s whimsical camerawork adds to the film’s charm, capturing the energy and buzz surrounding Bernstein’s early success as a musician and Broadway composer.
Enter Felicia, played by Carey Mulligan, who meets Bernstein by chance. Their chemistry is immediate and intoxicating, drawing viewers deeper into the story. Cooper and Mulligan’s naturalistic banter feels authentic, as if it were improvised. The heightened reality of their love story, where they transition from watching one of Bernstein’s musicals to participating in a dance number themselves, doesn’t shy away from the pain that comes with loving someone larger than life.
A significant aspect of the film is Bernstein’s romantic relationships with men. Matt Bomer delivers a heartfelt performance as David, Lenny’s clarinet player-partner, in a scene where he meets Felicia for the first time. The tension between these characters is palpable and gut-wrenching to watch. Cooper expertly switches gears in the second half of the film, transitioning from the black and white aesthetic to a vibrant New Hollywood color palette. As the story unfolds, we witness the challenges faced by the couple as they struggle to balance Lenny’s professional and personal desires. Mulligan’s portrayal of Felicia’s growing frustration and Cooper’s deliberate use of silence and simplicity make for a compelling narrative.
One notable aspect of Maestro is that Cooper focuses less on recreating scenes of Bernstein conducting and more on exploring the personal struggles and sacrifices of being a great artist. However, he does deliver a captivating late-stage performance that does justice to Bernstein’s musical prowess. Overall, Maestro is a remarkable character study, shedding light on the life of a celebrated American icon and the sacrifices required to love and support such a larger-than-life figure.