Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Maestro

Josh Reviews Maestro

Maestro is directed and co-written (with Josh Singer) by Bradley Cooper, who also stars as composer Leonard Bernstein.  The film spans the decades from the forties through the seventies, and tells the winding story of the romance between “Lenny” and the woman who would become his wife, Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan).

There’s a lot to enjoy in this ambitious production, even though I don’t think the film entirely works.

Maestro is anchored by towering performances by Mr. Cooper and Ms. Mulligan, both of whom are magnificent.  It’s worth seeing just to watch them both.

Bradley Cooper has given his all in his attempt to capture Leonard Bernstein.  He commits to mimicking Mr. Bernstein’s distinct voice, and utilizes a variety of prosthetics to recreate Mr. Bernstein’s distinct look.  (Much has been made of the prosthetic nose, which felt like much ado about nothing to me.  But let me say I was dazzled by how lifelike and convincing all of the makeup and prosthetic effects in the film are.  It all looks completely real and natural to me.  Especially when we get to the scenes in which Lenny is in his sixties and seventies, I thought this was some of the most convincing old-age makeup I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Bravo to all the artists involved!)  Most importantly, Mr. Cooper appears to have thrown himself into his efforts to mimic Mr. Bernstein’s conducting skills and styles.  There’s a sequence, late in the film, in which Lenny conducts Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in England.  The sequence is done in one long take, one that goes on and on, with the camera moving from a close-up shot of Mr. Cooper as Mr. Bernstein, to a beautiful spiral around the orchestra.  It’s a marvel of direction and also of performance — Mr. Cooper is throughly convincing as a skilled conductor for every second of this long sequence.  It’s amazing.  Mr. Cooper’s energy and charisma carry the film on his shoulders.  Even through the prosthetics and the voice, Mr. Cooper’s performance grabs the audience by the throat — he hooks you into the character and the film.

Carey Mulligan, by contrast, has a far less showy role.  Her Felicia is far more contained, more quiet, more internal than the gregarious Lenny.  But Ms. Mulligan is every inch as magnetic as Mr. Cooper.  I was enraptured by her performance.  Her energy and charisma fly through the screen.  I was immediately compelled to watch this character and learn about her.  I was immediately rooting for her, wishing for her success professionally and personally.  It’s a gorgeous performance, perfectly modulated as we follow Felicia’s ups and downs over the decades.

I really dug the first hour of this film, though my interest waned by the second.  That first hour flies along like gangbusters.  I was enthralled by the rapid-paced dialogue (reminiscent of classic screwball comedies from decades past) and the way the film flew through the years, moving breathlessly from one event to another.  I loved the cleverly theatrical staging, in which characters would walk between scenes and travel between geographic locations, not to mention years.  I smiled when the film morphed from a scene of Lenny and Felicia watching a rehearsal of Lenny’s play On the Town to Lenny’s being in the company, singing and dancing for Felicia.  These sequences were playful and fun and clever!  I was also impressed by the film’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Matthew Libatique.

I was intrigued by the decision to anchor this film around the relationship between Lenny and Felicia.  In the first half of the film, that worked for me.  I was interested in both these strong-willed, creative people, and I was enraptured by the story of their unusual courtship and romance.  But my interest faded as the film moved into the second half, and it shifted into the less-fun mode that these biopics often seem to turn into, in which the characters achieve success in their fields but grow increasingly unhappy in their personal lives, and sink into selfish behavior and substance abuse.  It just wasn’t much fun watching Lenny misbehave and the two of them argue.  More problematically, I started to question the film’s choices.  Why was the film continually displaying a gossipy focus on Lenny’s flirtations with men, as opposed to spending time exploring his monumental creative and artistic achievements?  It felt like the film was doing Leonard Bernstein’s life and legacy dirty, and my positive feelings towards the film started to curdle.  (Important note: there’s nothing wrong or negative about a character being homosexual and bisexual!  But the film works hard to get the audience invested in the Lenny-Felicia love story.  Lenny’s dalliances with men are always presented by the film as being negative; Lenny is ignoring Felicia, being unfaithful to her, and causing her — and then later, their kids — pain and anguish.  So it’s the film that presents this behavior in a negative light.  It all feels like the worst sort of gossip-mongering about a famous person’s sexual life.  I found myself asking: Why is this the aspect of Leonard Bernstein’s life on which the film has chosen to focus??)

I loved the music in the film, and the choices to use a lot of Mr. Bernstein’s music on the soundtrack.  That was skillfully done.

I commented above that I appreciated and enjoyed the playfulness and creativity in the film’s direction and staging.  I was also intrigued to see the film move from black and white into color (as we move through the years and enter a less happy portion of Lenny and Felicia’s relationship) as well as the shifting aspect ratios (with a widescreen format used in the portions of the film set towards the end of Lenny’s life, while the 1940’s of their youth and courtship was presented in a 4:3 ratio).  I liked the visual connection between the fast-talking section of the film and the 4:3 look of the old-style Hollywood films being emulated.  The color-shift didn’t work as well for me; it felt a little too on-the-nose for me, and it separated the film into two parts (the part I liked and the part I didn’t) too dramatically and over-simply for my taste.

I enjoyed Matt Bomer’s performance as David Oppenheim, the clarinetist with whom Lenny is seen having a thing before he meets Felicia.  Sarah Silverman does strong work as Lenny’s sister Shirley Bernstein, and Maya Hawke (Stranger Things, Asteroid City), is memorable in her scenes as Lenny and Felicia’s daughter Jamie.

I’m happy to have seen Maestro.  Having seen it, I understand why the film is getting a variety of different reviews, with some praising it while others are highly critical.  As you can see, I was somewhere in between.  There’s a lot to enjoy here, but I don’t think the film as a whole works the way I wanted it to, particularly in the second half.  Nevertheless, I’m impressed by what Bradley Cooper has accomplished here.  It’s been clear for many years that he’s a talented actor; I think now it’s also clear that he has a lot of skill as a director, and I’m eager to see what he does next.

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