' ' Cinema Romantico: Maestro

Wednesday, February 14, 2024


“Maestro” begins with American conductor and composer extraordinaire Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) playing his home piano. For a second, you might think he is alone, until you notice the television cameraman hovering in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and as the shot gradually closes in on Bernstein, the more cameras and lights come into view. He is performing, in other words, an apt emblem for a movie that is all about performance, and as much about performance in terms of its filmmaker and star and his co-star as it is about Bernstein, making for a fascinating yet frustrating film. After this sequence, we flash back to the past, the day Bernstein takes a call in his bedroom to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic, setting him on his way to professional glory. When the call ends, the dark curtain that has been drawn over a large window, is suddenly thrust open, revealing an exultant Bernstein standing on a window ledge. It put me in mind of Seinfeld’s immortal Elaine Benes saying of Rava’s boyfriend, the flamboyant possible thief Ray, and his penchant for theatrical flourish and melodramatic monologues, “Shouldn’t you be out on a ledge somewhere?” Cooper spends all of “Maestro” on the ledge.

In directing and co-writing the screenplay with Josh Singer, Cooper has opted out of making a traditional biopic, eschewing Leonard’s childhood and even forgoing any real insight into what made him a musical savant and how that manifested itself. No, “Maestro” suggests an artier “Walk the Line” in so much as the latter, despite a cut and paste kinda non-quality, found its spine through the love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter in so much as “Maestro,” too, preeminently functions as a love story of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Indeed, it proves her movie as much as his, foreshadowed in that same opening scene where in his on-camera interview, Leonard talks of sensing his deceased wife’s presence in their home, as if she’s still with him in death. In Cooper’s telling, Felicia was very much a moon pulled along in the orbit of Leonard’s massive planet, though one with the wherewithal to keep up. “You have a lot of energy,” he says to her the first time they meet, and the ring Cooper gives this line lets you know it’s a compliment. And though I can’t confess to knowing the real nature of their relationship, and though it is crucial to note “Maestro” was made with the blessing of Bernstein’s children, indicating a movie made in the image of their own feelings on the subject, despite all the wrenching complications that go hand-in-hand with Bernstein’s bisexuality, there is genuine electricity between Cooper and Mulligan that makes their love believable in spite of it all. 

If a thousand movies have contained a Supportive Spouse standing in the shadows, Cooper pulls Felicia into the spotlight, demonstrating her own artistic pursuits and honoring her point-of-view, literally even, slipping into a breathtaking shot from her perspective as she lies on her deathbed. And if he puts Felicia in the spotlight, he puts Mulligan there too, putting her name first in the closing credits and offering her smattering of smashing close-ups, ones in color that come across like moving Life Magazine covers, and a monochrome one on a sidewalk as she walks toward the camera as the camera moves toward her, as if illuminating its pull toward her, the wordless language of movie stardom laid out before us. In other shots, though, like the camera gradually pressing in on Felicia as she lays on her side on a blanket, telling a friend about her husband’s incompatible dimensions, Cooper is essentially allowing Mulligan’s acting to carry the image. That occurs later, too, for both of them during a Thanksgiving Day row, conveyed in one take and a long shot that turns their blocking into a reflection of the words. It works so well to leave each character spent and wrecked that the comic capper of a Macy’s Parade balloon floating past in the background falls flat.

For all the attention lavished on Mulligan, however, Cooper the director kind of hangs Cooper the actor out to dry. His controversial prosthetic nose and considerable old man makeup as Bernstein all would seem to symbolize how Cooper vanishes into the character, though in reality, the opposite is true, how despite so much virtual transformation, Cooper himself still shines through. This is never more acute than the climax in which Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Resurrection. Recounted in a six-minute single take, Bernstein is left drenched in sweat, though because Cooper has done so little to demonstrate his character’s conducting genius, what makes him one, how he harnesses the power of the orchestra, this moment becomes nothing more than an exhibition of Cooper’s own technique. It isn’t Bernstein’s sweat we’re seeing; it’s Cooper’s.

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