However, as this spirited and curious examination of the legendary composer/conductor proceeds, you have to admit: Cooper does a decent job.
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein. Photo: Netflix
The process of winning over is swift. The film opens with Cooper, buried under five hours’ worth of make-up, as the older Bernstein playing the piano in front of a documentary crew. After mentioning his deceased wife, those colours dissolve into a sharp black-and-white world as a fresh Lenny answers the phone in his New York apartment. Will this be a quiet, almost sombre biopic like Sofia Coppola’s latest film Priscilla? No chance.
It doesn’t take long for the curtains to part and Matthew Libatique’s flexible cinematography to fly through Carnegie Hall, thrust into the adrenaline of Lenny’s first time conducting the New York Philharmonic. Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer (A Star is Born) adopt a thrilling, screwball comedy acceleration for the dialogue. Lines overlap and complement each other, only growing faster and more reciprocal after Lenny meets Felicia at a party in 1946.
Maestro isn’t a formulaic biopic. Lenny’s early life and creative processes for On the Waterfront and West Side Story are relegated to expositional mentions and references via the soundtrack. This allows Lenny and Felicia’s story to bloom and flourish and fade across 27 years. The film travels from the heady monochrome days to a more dissatisfying era of colour, mired by Lenny’s ego, adultery and flexible sexuality in a more intolerant time. Despite the casting and make-up issues, Cooper and Mulligan provide two of this year’s finest performances: matching rhythms as much as chemistry.
And thankfully, Cooper and Singer treat Felicia with substance: she's more than the distressed wife of a male genius. She’s provided with adequate sympathy and nuance, dealing with an atypical marriage that threatens the comfy portrait they paint, especially to their children.
Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre. Photo: Netflix
The film revels in its own vivid musicality, reaching a brilliant, booming crescendo with Lenny conducting Mahler’s second symphony at Ely Cathedral. Like Bernstein, Cooper loses himself in the harmonies as if whirled into a hypnotic episode.
However, the story finds its zenith after Felicia’s cancer diagnosis. Cancer has been literally done to death in cinema and on TV, yet Cooper and Singer tackle it with refreshing detail – bringing the family closer together. Correlating with the speed of the first half, the second half rightly slows down.
Maestro doesn’t play in the mind for too long after the credits roll, but Cooper approaches Bernstein’s story with enough innovation and creativity to elevate the film beyond the bog-standard biopic. It’s a riveting and wonderfully told love story, spanning the latter decades of the 20th century with such orchestral force.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2023. Maestro will be in UK cinemas on Friday 24 November and available on Netflix from Wednesday 20 December.
|What||Maestro, Netflix review|
24 Nov 23 – 24 Nov 24, IN CINEMAS
20 Dec 23 – 20 Dec 24, ON NETFLIX
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|