‘Maestro’ Film

2023 is shaping up to be the Year of Aspiring Insufferable Auteurs. Many directors who made names for themselves with new and exciting projects have followed up their breakthroughs with obvious claptrap clearly designed to stoke their own egos. It’s not that the films aren’t good – they are, at the very least, directed impeccably. It’s just that the heart and soul that makes a great film great just isn’t there. Thus is the case with Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to 2018’s A Star Is Born. A biography of the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, Maestro is well-acted and expertly directed, but there’s little below the surface that explores who Bernstein was or what makes him tick.

Maestro follows the life of Leonard Bernstein (Cooper), often considered the first great American composer. The film follows his life from his legendary debut at the New York Philharmonic through his career composing works like On The Town, West Side Story, On The Waterfront, Candide, and his legendary performance at Ely Cathedral. Through it all, Lenny’s rock remains his wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan), and the film explores their complicated relationship as Lenny tries to balance his bisexuality and affairs with men alongside his relationship with the long-suffering Felicia.

Maestro’s greatest error is in its disjointed and dispassionate presentation of Bernstein’s life. A biopic usually springs from one of two places: a desire to explore a significant person’s life, or to try to understand that significant person’s psyche. Cooper aspires to and achieves neither with Maestro. There is no insight into who Leonard Bernstein was. We’re told he’s a great composer, and we’re told he had a complicated love life, but that’s just it. We’re told these details, and what little we’re told never actually serves to define Leonard as a character.

Take, for instance, the film’s focus on his relationship with Felicia, arguably the film’s driving plotline. The first act relatively shines, thanks to the chemistry between the two leads and the way the film portrays their seduction (in spite of some relative staginess). Yet as the film goes on, we come to realize that their relationship never has any stakes – on their relationship or on the music he creates. It’s simply an hour and a half of Felicia catching Lenny cheating on her, getting jealous, they agree to be more discreet, and then the cycle repeats.

Maestro never explores why these people were the way they were, or how it drove Lenny the composer. In fact, we barely even see him composing – it’s often alluded to, but outside of the admittedly-impressive Cathedral performance, this aspect of his life is rarely, if ever, shown. It certainly raises questions of what the film could have been if it actually doubled down on its most impressive moments. What if we’d gotten to see some of Lenny’s best performances? What if the film always possessed the energy of the final scene, where old man Bernstein dances to “Shout” and flirts with his protéges?

It’s such a shame, because Cooper’s direction has only grown since his directorial debut. So many sequences sparkle with heart and emotion, from Carey Mulligan’s first reveal (pure movie magic) to a quiet closing shot of a car with a missing passenger (more powerful than most films could ever hope to be). Cooper also scores the film with Bernstein’s most iconic music, which creates several moments of excitement. For instance, the iconic West Side Story fight score is utilized in a moment where Felicia sees Lenny flirting with his new boyfriend Tommy (Gideon Glick).

And one cannot understate Matthew Libartique’s cinematography, lively and riveting throughout. His camera shifts between black-and-white and color, static and flowing, never missing a beat underneath the cinematographer’s watchful gaze. One shot in particular is hard to forget in its absolutely brilliant comedy, in which a massive fight is underscored with the Snoopy Thanksgiving float passing the window just behind an incredibly sad Bernstein. In a lot of ways, Maestro resembles Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic Lenny, an experimental biopic focusing on its protagonist’s relationship. And it shows exactly how great this film could have been with a tighter script.

Cooper’s performance can best be summed up as “a terrific imitation,” mainly because there is no depth beyond the impressive makeup and posturing. There are a few moments of honesty and pathos within this character – one involving his internal debate regarding coming out to his daughter, and another where, with a twinkle in his eye, he asks a newborn “Do you want to know a secret? I slept with both your parents.” Both of these moments show a warmth and humanity the rest of his performance never reaches – at least not in the same way as Carey Mulligan as Felicia. Mulligan shines in this role, and she dominates the film from her first appearance. She is magnetic, heartbreaking, and honest, and the film just doesn’t work when she’s not onscreen.

The rest of the performances range from “pretty good” to “what the hell is happening?” For example, Maya Hawke is decent enough when daughter Jamie has bigger moments, although she always seems out of place in the lighter moments. Neither Matt Bomer as an ex-boyfriend nor Michael Urie as Jerome Robbins are given enough to do, despite shining in their few onscreen moments. Sarah Silverman, meanwhile, is fairly unconvincing as Lenny’s beloved sister – not one word out of her mouth conveys emotion or sincerity; it’s a strange bit of stunt casting. And then there’s the aforementioned Glick in the film’s funniest performance. He’s not very convincing in the role, but he plays so a strange little weaselly bastard that it kind of works.

Maestro is, if nothing else, a clever film. It is well-staged and filmed. The actors are (mostly) giving it their all. The story’s interesting enough. Yet it’s hard to give this film anything close to a ringing endorsement. Film, like the music that Bernstein composed, needs to be felt more than thought. You can hit all the right notes, you can say all the right things or use all the right shots, but if the audience isn’t moved emotionally, it’s all for naught. The Bradley Cooper who directed A Star Is Born and emotionally devastated the world knew this. Even as he grows as a director, I’m not entirely sure the Bradley Cooper who directed Maestro does.

B-

Maestro is now streaming on Netflix

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