Maestro is a very ambitious film. Co-written and directed by and starring Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born, Silver Linings Playbook), it attempts to tell the story of Leonard Bernstein, one of the greatest composer/conductors of the 20th century. But instead of using his music, it looks at his life through his relationship with his wife Felicia, played by the lovely and talented Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman, An Education). And while the movie is a lavish production with some very good performances, it frequently feels very much like an over-the-top vanity piece for Cooper who despite those early notices really does mostly disappear under some amazing prosthesis.
The film begins with a young Bernstein getting a life-changing phone call — the conductor of the New York Philharmonic has come down with the flu and he as assistant conductor will be stepping in sans rehearsal that evening. His place in the classical music world is cemented. At the same time, he is collaborating with some of the greats of the Broadway musical set, writing “West Side Story”, “On the Town”, and many of the most memorable musicals of that era. He is also having affairs with men. But a chance meeting at his sister’s house alters his life.
Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan), a Chilean actress, for reasons unexplained in the film, steals his heart. The two of them become fast friends and lovers and soon marry. They have three children and seem to be contented. But Leonard just can’t help but keep having affairs with men, even if it Felicia knows all about it. Just don’t tell the kids. They split up for a bit, but when Felicia is diagnosed with breast cancer he returns to take care of her.
Maestro works well on some levels but fails on others. Cooper’s performance is at times very authentic but at others feels too studied to the point of caricature. The scenes where he conducts never feel quite right. Maybe he has copied straight from videos of Bernstein’s actual performances, but they’re kind of embarrassing. But since the story is told through Leonard and Felicia’s relationship, the strength of the film is in Carey Mulligan’s heartfelt performance as the wife who sticks it out despite her talented, famous husband’s improprieties. She’s no “stand by your man” pushover, and her rising indignation at his indifference to her suffering is palpable.
The film itself is meticulously put together. The camerawork starts out in gorgeous black and white, mirroring the look of the time, and switches to color during the time cinema switched over. Even the aspect ratio changes. And there are some amazing shots and sequences, particularly in the b&w period. Both Cooper and Mulligan start out speaking in an affected Hollywood Mid-Atlantic accent, but thankfully by the end of the film they’ve evolved to a more natural tone. And the beautiful soundtrack is entirely of Bernstein’s work, though mostly less famous pieces.
I suspect this one will get a lot of awards attention and I think it should. Mulligan is great. The cinematography is great. Bernstein is a fascinating man. And it probably doesn’t hurt to have Scorsese and Spielberg listed as producers either. As I said, it is a very ambitious film. But does it live up to Bradley’s ambition? I’m not so sure.
Netflix will open the film in theaters November 22 before it streams on December 20.