THE STORY – “Maestro” follows the complex love story of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre; from the time they met in 1946 at a party, through two engagements, a 25-year marriage and three children.
THE CAST – Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Josh Hamilton, Scott Ellis, Gideon Glick, Sam Nivola, Alexa Swinton & Miriam Shor
THE TEAM – Bradley Cooper (Director/Writer) & Josh Singer (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
When you exist in the realm of re-telling the true-life histories of famous musical figures, it’s obvious that it’s time to shake up the formula when there are enough entries in the subgenre to make a parody movie out of it. There are still several occasions when the formula works, but those are more successes on a commercial scale rather than creating something that has any lasting artistic value. It’s necessary for artists and storytellers to find innovation in the method in which these stories are presented, and one can find that intention within “Maestro.” It’s an often bold and vibrant piece that remains engaging even when it can help fall back on some traditional trappings.
The subject for this piece is Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper), a towering figure of musical composition and conducting who has risen to great prominence in history. A spot of good luck propels the young Bernstein to serve as a substitute conducting one of the most famous orchestras in the world, forcing him onto the world stage for his exceptional talent. However, Leonard is not the only Bernstein that plays a significant role. Almost equal time is shared with his wife, Felicia (Carey Mulligan). She has her own passions as an actress and is instantly taken with Leonard’s charm. Yet, she also knows that his fluid sexuality and the affairs he has over the years puts a strain on their marriage. Though it all, they still share a deep bond that may have been tested but never shatters completely.
There are several points in which one can judge Cooper’s efforts here. Much like his debut feature, “A Star Is Born,” he again wears multiple hats for this production. His direction is the one to take particular note of because it is the most significant leap in quality between these two features. Cooper has a commanding sense of the camera, both in movement and composition. The imagery he creates alongside cinematographer Matthew Libatique is often breathtaking. There are grandiose gestures, such as the opening shot that bursts through a concert hall with an energizing exuberance. However, even the still moments have a real power. The presentation of a bickering fight is played wide and far, but the emotion still feels right up close. The filmmaking is a wonderful feat, and it’s a welcomed delight to see his talents evolve.
Unfortunately, the screenplay from Cooper and Josh Singer has a few more areas of contention. The foundation it supplies does them close to many other works that came before, even if it is able to find some slight variation. The bifurcated focus of the narrative between husband and wife gives more context about how these relationships were vital to one another, not just the more famous male figure. As the film progresses, however, that balance seems difficult to maintain. The momentum drags considerably after the first half, and the narrative doesn’t capture the same energy as before. This could be laid at the feet of the director, but the awkward scene constructions and considerably slower pace are more born out of the lack of sense of direction the script has at this point. Tracking the lives of this married couple becomes less engaging when the major conflicts arise. The compass is lost, and the orientation of time is elusive. One has the sense that extended sequences had to be trimmed down, but the storytelling loses much of its effectiveness as it continues.
Even with all these other departments that Cooper represents, his performance will always be the first distinction most will make. Yet again, he delivers another powerful portrayal under his own direction. Even for those who may have never heard of Leonard Bernstein, there is a natural ease with which he slips into this character, and his affable charisma is perfectly captured within his loving and overly friendly aura. The pain in his life is fully realized, whether that be the shame his daughter projects onto him due to his encounters with men or the tragedy when his wife falls ill. There’s even very convincing old-age makeup that is rather impressive. Despite what some may call gimmicks with prosthetics, there’s a genuine soul that Cooper is able to craft, and it’s marvelous to watch.
Mulligan is an equal match. Her perspective is given the same weight as her on-screen husband, and seeing the manifestation of her own dreams and desires is compelling. He supplies her own alluring qualities that play off of Cooper in scenes of fantastic chemistry. There is an airiness that sweeps you off your feet, and you understand why it was so easy to fall in love with her in the first place. Still, she makes a defiant presence all her own. When her cancer diagnosis is revealed, her receiving such news is one of the film’s most devastating moments. Mulligan breathes a captivating beauty and heartache into this performance that one is easily taken with.
There are fine members in this supporting cast, but the level of impact is not very much for most of them. Maya Hawke is endearing as Bernstein’s oldest daughter, and her scenes make quite an impression. However, it’s not enough to be completely won over, given the leading stars, and this is another example where it feels as if the material that would have given her more complexity was edited out. The same fate appears for the men in Leonard’s life. An early and later fling played by Matt Bomer and Gideon Glick are both not given nearly enough to comment on this tortured love life. The one person who manages to give the most with their limited screen time is Sarah Silverman, playing Bernstein’s sister. She initially feels slightly out of place, but soon, her natural wit is deployed brilliantly, and she becomes a fascinating figure.
Some of the most arresting visuals in “Maestro” are in its first half. It’s almost experimental how Cooper showcases these moments, one of which is an interpretive dance number meant to mirror a development in the relationship. However, this device completely dissipates in the second half, and one is treated to a more classical status. At this point, the rhythm is disrupted, and the collection of scenes is ungainly assembled. So much steam is lost toward a jumbled finale that it feels abrupt and unsatisfying. Yet, with great performances from the two leads, it’s enough to hang onto. Cooper hasn’t escaped all of the limitations of the subgenre, but at least this shows his passion for storytelling can still be arresting no matter where he stands by the camera.