Maestro opens and closes with two of the most familiarly lukewarm indulgences of the biopic: the epigraph that precedes the action and “real footage” of the “real person” that accompanies the credits. The former, especially when not explicitly a quotation from the subject (Oppenheimer, The Big Short, The Hurt Locker, et al.) serves as an awkward thesis sentence. It consigns the image to the terrain of the written word and the territory of evidence rather than letting it speak for—and so beyond—itself. The latter is perhaps grosser, a proof in some regard of means (this is why we did it this way) and ends (this is how close we got).
To watch the “real” Leonard Bernstein bring Maestro past its postlude is to recognize Cooper’s noble efforts as actor, co-writer, and director of the man’s visage and essence. He did move like that, in space and over the world. His conducting was kinetic, his face as expressive as his baton, and his limbs were wild. His compositions too, moved eclectically and spanned genre and form. They possessed, as in Candide’s Overture or West Side Story’s “Mambo,” a scratchy collapse-y elasticity. A certain flamboyance pervades. Or is performed. At a certain point, Maestro suggests, a life begins to impersonate itself.
When Cooper’s film, his second feature after A Star is Born (2017), indulges the hallmarks of its form, it’s as embalmed as any of the myriad other serious-eyed biopics that choke the 21st-century metroplex. Structurally, so many of the symptoms are there, from the starry early-going to the embittered wife squinting through the husband’s fame. There are actorly shouting matches, cancer bedsides, and an overwhelming sense that a life means something, might be read as a design for living or worship.
At its worst, the film treats love as a Public Relation, a brand-affirmation that supplants affection with ownership. This is a film that Leonard Bernstein’s children can love, will love. It is literally dedicated to them. This is not a problem per se, but it does remove the strategy of “problem” from the filmmakers’ toolkit. The film must acquiesce.
When it discards its genre hallmarks, it chases something turbulently stupid and far more grandly romantic than the enshrinement Lincoln Center or any consortium offers. It is oddly paced. For every occasion when it doubles down on an ever-escalating scale of syrup and glitz, there is another when it underplays itself. That chirpy rat-a-tat dialogue of the starry pre-fame years is near impossible to make out to the spectator’s ear. It’s not bad sound mixing, but a choice that renders the characters’ early and obvious flirtations an inscrutable intimacy in plain day. They get to exist for themselves, or rather, for these fictional and primal versions of themselves.
The bitterness of the wife off-stage and the esotericism of the genius husband are not played for tragedy but as personal choices, by actors who make a movie and actors who make a marriage. The shouting match ends with a deflating punchline. After the grief of illness comes renewed hedonism and genuine connection, not puritan reactionism.
At a certain point, Maestro suggests, a life begins to impersonate itself.
The film is maybe not about Leonard Bernstein at all, or it can be not about Leonard Bernstein. What if the biopic wasn’t a lesson in a life lived but a version of something, an acting out of feeling? Past all the conditions that familial estates, cultural institutions, or communal memories impose on individuals to render them idol or idle, Maestro is inoculated from the prison of good taste by having none. This is its real contradiction: it is both the question of a Bernstein biopic and the answer of having nothing (everything) to do with his life.
It begins in full color and falseness: the aged Leonard Bernstein performed by Bradley Cooper performing at the piano for a film crew filming maestro as a film crew films Maestro. This is, thankfully, a very stupid image, both obvious and obviously lovely. Nothing kills connection—to the muse, to the eternal, to our inherent human stupidity—like an abundance of cleverness. To its eternal credit, Maestro has no use for the sharp edge of irony. The story is nearly symphonic impressionism, a reduction of the biographer’s excess of details into the roux of emotions colliding. It is synesthetic. The image sings.
After the beginning’s picture, Bernstein leathered and remembering, we move like remembering itself back to black and white. Lenny like an extra in On the Town, Cooper like a would-be Tony in West Side Story. A joy to watch an actor excited to share (subject you to?) their performance! How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You Maestro. The curtained stage was a bedroom window all along. The lover in bed was a man, whose bottom gets bongoed by Lenny’s hands in the exuberant afterglow of realizing that he’s Leonard Bernstein. And this movie’s for him.
It doesn’t chew like Tar (2022) or plumb like Topsy-Turvy (1999), but Maestro still agitates, like these opuses, composition towards connection. The former indicates the composer’s solace as a rare attempt to emit something speculative even as old power crashes down from sour desire. The latter backseats the composer (or music and lyric) to the sentience of the piece itself, communal, comradely, obstetric, apocalyptic. Maestro makes composing an act. And then it performs it.
It is nominally Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein movie. It mediates both artists present in that formulation: it depicts the terrain between composing and conducting as comparable to the span between acting and directing. In Bernstein’s hands, a score was an attempt to connect the orchestra and audience alike to the music in the air. In Maestro’s hands, composition is a contradiction. It is the emergence of the self into a world full of others, who will respond with applause or denunciation or reifiction or love. Cooper’s tell is to refit the story of a single and singular man into the story about two people, through love. By the time the end credits roll, their final image suggesting that “maestro” doesn’t only refer to Leonard Bernstein, the film has confessed that it is a remaking of A Star is Born.
I don’t think we should mind if Cooper does nothing but make and remake A Star is Born in whatever trajectory his filmmaking takes. In a dramatic forum (“the marriage story”) still dominated by Marriage Story (2019)-style dourness, the braindead bludgeon of love as an essential narrative engine is a handy and welcome counterpoint. Love makes us braindead. We should all be so lucky to be smudged by its touch. And so Maestro smudges the clear path forward of Lenny. There he is, riding high on his Carnegie Hall debut and delighted to be in a chirpy movie with his dancer boyfriend, all “Our Time” aplomb emanating off post-war New York’s bohemian art scene. And then he falls in love with Felicia Montealegre.
If Maestro is a minor film, it is because it traverses the terrain of the exceptional man and speaks in the tongue of one.
Played by Carey Mulligan as more maestro than muse, Felicia co-composes the film alongside her husband. Maestro’s space is occasionally impossible. Which is to say, it functions according to the rules of memory instead of reality, as in the motion between “real” color and the black and white of then, of never.
As in an early bravura sequence that moves unbroken from bedroom through hallway while a camera crashes through a ceiling that doesn’t exist only to swing out on a crane to reveal a transplantation to the balcony of Carnegie Hall itself. The structure is splice, but the narrative gravity is dependable and steady. It insists upon the movement of Lenny and Felicia, towards and away, away and towards.
They fall in love desperately. They love each other desperately, through the Connecticut country houses and the stated/not-stated terms of their marriage’s openness and their openness with one another. It’s not a spoiler to say that Felicia’s death is a devastation to Leonard, least of all because it’s stated in the first scene of the film. But this fact isn’t true because it’s a true fact (of biography or memoir) but because in a cinema of A Star is Born, devastation follows love as surely as death follows life. Dependable gravity.
Put back to back, Mulligan is perhaps closer to Cooper than we’ve been willing to admit, and perhaps all the more novel a presence for it. Both are comfortable with the grand gesture, the actorly tic, the outsize theatric. They gravitate towards genre performances and generic ideations. He hotheads farce in American Hustle (2013), ham-noirs horror in Nightmare Alley (2021). She tragedizes the vamp in The Great Gatsby (2013) and bores through British Period Drama in The Dig (2021). These are essence-ial performances, somehow too-much with elegance. They both feel like they might be in a film like Maestro. Neither is especially “good” in Maestro, but both are in Maestro, which is something nobody in any other movie is.
After an industry reorienting turn in An Education (2009), Mulligan has been cast of late as Montealegre types, whether in the deadly, dead-eyed flippancy of Promising Young Woman (2020) or the portraiture showcase of Wildlife (2018). A barroom outburst she delivers in She Said (2022) remains a notable and notably misguided example of a director allowing or encouraging an actor to perform (theme) loudly instead of making a film rigorous enough to allow an actor to play and feel.
Also too often of late: Montealegre types have been performed a certain way, as bitter women who can only be drawn bitterly or absentmindedly or not at all (think, again, of Oppenheimer, The Big Short, The Hurt Locker, et al.) who stand in as avatars for the real conditions of misogyny instead of existing as co-writers of imaginary—and so contradictively, possible—solutions to it.
Maestro doesn’t solve either issue, of Mulligan’s recent casting woes or of the women who are ignored and exploited in art and life. But then, Maestro isn’t for solving issues. A Star is Born isn’t for causing a change, just changing the world’s register for two-plus hours. In performing, new shades of the same life emerge. At a certain point, you have to perform life for feeling to emerge.
The cinema of A Star is Born—heretofore, of Bradley Cooper—is to level the elegance of art cinema and the mass embrace of mass culture, to write a way of writing (authorship, “A Film by Bradley Cooper”) with the tentative bigness of (company-based) acting itself.
If Maestro is a minor film, it is because it traverses the terrain of the exceptional man and speaks in the tongue of one. At a certain point, saying celebratory things about Leonard Bernstein turns into saying celebratory things about Bradley Cooper. Neither is wrong, necessarily, but neither are they novel, turbulent, pleasurable as in the music, as in the movies. A certain egoism pervades, limiting the possibilities of the frame by a desire for limitlessness.
If Maestro is a major work, it is because its essential image is of two people sitting back to back, facing away from each other yet somehow intimately aware of their own limitations and the unlimited capacity for joy and ache the others’ eyes provides them. Which they can’t always see. They contradict each other, which doesn’t mean ignore or worship, just sit with, maybe forever.
When it is pedantic, as in time and memory itself, Maestro trudges. When it transcends—when it conducts composition in a moment of history—it speaks in the language of music, which is the name we call the imagined solution to a real problem. It contradicts itself, like love and acting, harmony and discord looking back at each other across time and texture. They contact themselves. And in all the sounds of the world in a single word, acknowledgement. Sing it loud, say it soft.