Movie Review: Maestro

A great man gets a great biopic.

Leonard Bernstein was a towering figure of the 20th century—the kind of celebrity only mid-century America could produce. A conductor, composer, and pedagogue of the highest order, he was also a glamorous and fashionable man, a social activist, a sex symbol, a master conversationalist, and a household name, even hosting a long-running CBS television show, Young People’s Concerts, that introduced generations of children to classical music.

Everything about him was larger than life—from his vibrant persona on stage; to his jazzy, muscular compositions; to the thick wavy hair that fell into his face when he conducted. (As he aged, we watched that hair turn from dark brown to grey to white.)

Alongside him for much of his stardom was his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, a beautiful and self-possessed woman who helped him fend off a variety of rumors—that he was a homosexual, that he was a communist—and gave Bernstein three children, as well as the cover of a “normal,” heterosexual life.

When I think of Bernstein, I think of his music—especially the score he wrote for West Side Story, the greatest American musical of all time (with apologies to Hamilton). The popular music he wrote for films and Broadway was irresistibly entertaining, but he had a more serious side, too—he wrote chamber music, symphonies, and his monumental “Mass,” which is being rediscovered, partly due to a recent performance by one of his prized pupils, former BSO artistic director Marin Alsop. And as a conductor, he helped acclimate American audiences to the sophisticated sounds of 20th-century European composers like Shostakovich and Mahler.

Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a passion project the actor/filmmaker has been working on for six years, captures a lot of this, in dizzying, virtuosic fashion. I would’ve liked for the film to have focused a bit more on Bernstein, the composer (we hear snippets of West Side Story and On the Town, among other works, but not nearly enough), but Cooper is much more interested in his personal life—and how it intersected with his artistic one.

Let’s get those notorious prosthetics out of the way: For the most part, Cooper looks remarkably like Bernstein, although occasionally the nose and the prominently jutting chin stick out like sore thumbs. But they don’t really distract unless you’re looking for them to distract. (The prosthetics become less noticeable as the film goes on and my theory is the makeup department had more to work with as Bernstein aged—wrinkles, sagging skin, flyaway hair—and thus were less dependent on those features.)

Much more importantly, Cooper captures Bernstein to an almost uncanny degree. Bernstein was the ultimate bon vivant—chatty, charming, effusive. (He was such an extrovert that he liked to go to the bathroom with the door open.) Even his gestures were large—both on stage and off. He had a flamboyance coupled with an elegance, and a kind of pansexual appeal. On stage, he used his body to tell a story, crouching and springing and swinging his arms. (In rehearsals, he did all of this with a cigarette dangling insouciantly from his lips.) It could be argued—and I’m sure some did—that he was such a huge presence on stage, he distracted from the music. But what he really did is draw the audience into the ecstasy he was experiencing so they could feel it themselves.

That said, the man was also an egomaniac who could suck the air out of a room, as Felicia (Carey Mulligan) tells him wearily late in their marriage. It was Felicia, it turns out, who seduced him. She met him at a party, a few years after his triumphant Carnegie Hall debut, and immediately set her sights on him, bringing him to an empty theater to run (romantic) lines with her. He was delighted by her—and attracted as well. The film seems to suggest that Bernstein was a bisexual, as sexually and romantically drawn to Felicia as he was to the many men in his orbit, even his most frequent male lover, David Oppenheim (Matt Bohmer). Or maybe her attraction to him was enough for the both of them.

“You don’t know how much you need me, do you?” she tells him.

“I might,” he replies.

Whatever the case, she was the great love of his life, at least in this version of the story.

Fairly early in their relationship, Felicia figures out that “Lenny” also likes to sleep with men. (This apparently wasn’t that uncommon among the artsy set—at one point, Bernstein runs into David Oppenheim and his wife and baby. “Does she know I slept with both of her parents?” Bernstein trills.) But as Felicia admits, late in the film, she deluded herself into thinking she was okay with it—that it was a small price to pay for having this great man in her life. Of course, his frequent dalliances did create a rift in their relationship. Especially when he got indiscreet about them—she felt like he was humiliating her.

In one of the film’s best scenes—a dream sequence of sorts—Lenny finds himself on stage, dressed in a sailor suit, with the cast of On the Town. The handsome young actors push and pull on Lenny as Felicia tries to hold onto him amid the chaos. It’s a show-offy moment from Cooper but it is pulled off with panache. The man can really direct.

As Felicia, Mulligan matches the performance of her co-star note for note. (Rather touchingly, Cooper gives her first billing in the film’s credits; they should both earn Oscar nominations for their work.) Her Felicia is smart and self-assured, but there is an occasional brittleness to her smile—she got so good at faking the role of dutiful wife, she lost a bit of herself in the process. Both she and Cooper talk like highly educated, mid-century socialites. Cooper gives his Bernstein a kind of swinging patter—he’s this close to snapping his fingers when he talks. Mulligan sounds a bit like Katherine Hepburn—clipped, patrician, vaguely transatlantic. The stunning costumes and sets that steer us from the New York of the ’40s through the ’80s are swooningly perfect.

As a cellist who has sat in many an orchestra in her day, I give Cooper a B for his impression of a conductor at the podium. He gets Bernstein’s mannerisms and stage presence right, but the timekeeping is a bit wonky. (I give a slight edge to Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tar in that respect, although Cooper spends a lot more time on stage conducting—including the famous, one-take, six-minute excerpt of Mahler’s Second Symphony that comes at the film’s climax.)

Maestro is not a complete portrait of Bernstein—how could it be? The man lived an uncommonly full and rich life. But it is a beautifully mounted, exquisitely acted film that draws us into Bernstein’s world through this intriguing love story. The film argues that Bernstein was such a voracious lover of life, his appetites could not be contained—for love, for sex, for the company of other people, and mostly for music. That’s why he refused to conform to the European model of a distinguished conductor—buttoned up and formal. He was a swashbuckler, whose sword was his baton.