This week on It’s Been A Long Time Since Midnight Meat Train Theatre is Maestro (now streaming on Netflix), Bradley Cooper’s film about influential composer Leonard Bernstein. Behind the camera for the second time after netting a pile of Oscar nods for 2018’s A Star is Born, Cooper directs himself as Bernstein, wearing a controversial prosthetic nose and cultivating significant chemistry with Carey Mulligan, playing Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre. Where A Star is Born established Cooper as a Serious Filmmaker, Maestro finds him taking big swings in an attempt to be a True Artist – and regardless of whether his gambit works or not, we should be grateful that he isn’t content to deliver yet another bland biopic.
MAESTRO: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: “I miss her terribly.” Bernstein, graying and wrinkled and smoking an omnipresent cigarette, sits at his piano, speaking about his late wife to a documentary film crew. The picture is in color, but transitions to black-and-white as the narrative jumps back to a dark room with light peeking around the edges of a window curtain. The phone rings and Bernstein answers. Tonight, he’ll conduct the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, as a last-minute fill-in for an ill conductor. No rehearsal, no problem. Thrilled and invigorated, he awakens his partner David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and dashes from the room in his underwear into an empty Carnegie Hall, which is not immediately adjacent to his apartment, but this is a movie, and this is how Cooper creatively conveys that Leonard has finally made it all. The. Way. To. Carnegie. Hall. His big break. He knocks ’em dead, kid, because of course he does. He has It.
It’s the mid-1940s. Cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes. Leonard plays piano at a party hosted by his sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman) and attended by a number of well-dressed people, none more lovely than Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan), a young actress. Leonard and Felicia. Felicia and Leonard. They hit it off and ditch the party for the dark, empty theater where she’s performing in a play. He stands on the stage in dim lighting and she emerges from the darkness, all but glowing. They act out a scene and kiss, interrupted by the custodian, who cluelessly turns on the lights, thinking they’d prefer it that way. Silly man. Leonard and Felicia, Felicia and Leonard have dates in the park and soon end up in bed, sharing themselves in every way. “Let’s give it a whirl,” she says.
A dozen years later. We’re still in black-and-white and Leonard and Felicia, Felicia and Leonard have children and fame now. He’s a composer and conductor and creator and performer and she’s a reasonably successful television actress, ever duly by her husband’s side out of choice and enthusiasm and duty, although which of those takes precedence will move and shift as their relationship progresses. Either way, we get a shot of Leonard conducting and Felicia watches from the wings, standing quite literally in his shadow. He concludes and walks off stage directly into her embrace. It’s warm and tender but also a subtle sign of… trouble? Fracture? Discontent? Discontent. You surely noticed how he had a male lover earlier and now has been married to a woman for many years, which continue to go by, as years must.
We’re in color now, where the smoke from cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes doesn’t quite have the romantic visual affectation. Leonard and Felicia, Felicia and Leonard feast on his success, hosting lively and extravagant parties, between their vast Manhattan apartment and sprawling country estate. “Something in her seems crushed,” one observer observes. “I can get very deeply depressed,” Leonard reveals. The subtext begins to emerge into the text: He is always LEONARD and she is merely Felicia. He drinks and drugs and philanders, and Felicia urges him to “be discreet” and address the rumors their eldest daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) is hearing. At Felicia’s request, Leonard lies to Jamie, who seems to be too smart to quite swallow his insistences whole, but also understands that her father loves her immensely. Leonard and Felicia, Felicia and Leonard are building to a blowout. How can they not? Crushed. Depressed. And they let rip as Thanksgiving Day parade balloons pass by their apartment window. Snoopy. One of them is Snoopy.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Between Maestro and Christopher Nolan’s mighty Oppenheimer, here’s hoping the films initiate a trend that pushes back against dull, traditional biopics. It’s also a fact-based counterpoint to 2022’s unforgettable portrait of a fictional conductor, Tar.
Performance Worth Watching: Some will insist Cooper’s highly performative portrayal of Bernstein is an act of ego, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Most will insist that Mulligan’s Oscar-worthy work anchors the picture, her performance quietly underscored with the character’s confused melange of love, acceptance, understanding and deep, deep pain.
Memorable Dialogue: Felicia, to Leonard, early in their relationship, unwittingly foreseeing their impending life together: “I thought maybe you were worth making an exception for.”
Sex and Skin: Nothing worth noting.
Our Take: As director, Cooper, inadvertently or otherwise, reflects the complex dynamic of his two lead characters in his difficult marriage of a character-focused narrative with significant visual gusto. There are moments when Cooper’s fanciful scene transitions and dalliances with aspect ratios and shifting color palettes feel distractingly indulgent – but they also bring Maestro to life beyond his and Mulligan’s fully committed and inspired performances. It’s hard to feel conflicted about our sympathies for Bernstein, portrayed here as a man whose impassioned art provided some catharsis for his tortured psychology; his bad behavior is understandable considering the context of mid-century America and the intensity of the spotlight on him. It’s easier to feel conflicted about Maestro itself, which often feels overtly engineered to be a Work of Art that’s more difficult and challenging than your average biographical film: Look at Maestro! It’s absolutely not Bohemian Rhapsody or Respect, and is in fact much, much more than that!
However, the film adheres to convention by building to two key third-act sequences, the Big Fight and the Big Performance. The former could be a shared Oscar clip for Mulligan and Cooper, and I’m torn between appreciating it as a powerhouse moment and feeling that this is the moment when the screenplay (by Cooper and Josh Singer) is at its most calculated and manipulative. The latter is more compelling and suggestive, a depiction of Bernstein as an obsessed madman artist, dripping with sweat as he conducts a symphony at London’s far-beyond-majestic Ely Cathedral, Cooper thrashing and wildly gesticulating at the lectern, wearing a crazed expression suggesting a broiling psychological cocktail of the-rest-of-the-world-drops-away absorption, disarming passion and outright lunacy. Moments earlier, we watched as Leonard inhaled cocaine; on this stage, is he high on drugs, or on the music? Who can tell?
Early in the film, Cooper nurtures a heightened tonal sensibility that feels like meta-commentary – these scenes set in the ’40s, with their rapid-fire chattering dialogue and ebullient characters, don’t they feel like the stuff of Golden Era Hollywood romantic comedies? But as Maestro progresses, Leonard/Cooper remains performative, because part of the composer’s life was exactly that, as he gave the public a show of being a heterosexual family man, while increasingly not-so-secretly carrying on as a closeted gay man. Meanwhile, Felicia/Mulligan drops the artificial patter and begins to truly recognize the painful compromises she’s made. I found myself struggling to get a grip on Leonard as a character, although the frustration allows us to more keenly key in on Felicia’s inner conflict, and find emotional handholds in Mulligan’s rich, complicated characterization. Did Felicia enable her husband to make great art, or simply endure it? That’s a question without an easy answer. But that’s the reason Mulligan is billed above Cooper in the cast list; sometimes those who occupy the artist’s tightest orbit and love him unconditionally are more fascinating than the artist himself.
Our Call: Maestro stirs up mixed feelings in its portrait of a deeply conflicted artist: Is the movie art, or not? I say yes. Cooper sure seems to be insistent on that interpretation, but his try-hard directorial overtures aren’t a dealbreaker; there’s plenty to appreciate on multiple storytelling levels here. Oh, and it features the most convincing old-person makeup in any movie to date, which is not nothing. Give it a whirl and STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.