There is a scene late in Maestro where Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein is instructing a student on the instincts of conducting and in that moment, I realized this single portion was more the film I expected from Cooper given the precedent he’d set with A Star is Born than the one we ultimately got. A Star is Born was a movie that truly appreciated the process around crafting a song and/or piece of music and stood apart for its consideration of such. As much as a biopic about the late, great Bernstein felt like a natural next step in Cooper’s directing career Maestro simply never digs into its subject’s process and headspace in the way his previous film did; in a way that never allows the viewer to feel they really understand this man at his core – what exactly was it that made him so great? Is the film visually stunning and sonically overwhelming to the point it can't help but be impressive? Absolutely. And yet, even as I sat marveling at the ways in which Cooper had grown as a storyteller, an actor, and even an "artist" - as pompous as that may sound - I was still left with an empty, hollow feeling in that I could feel the intent and understand the meaning of as much, but never sensed the significance. Like a conductor on his podium who is supposed to be allowing the audience to experience the music, Cooper instead uses his filmmaking as a way of exerting his hard work and dedication over those who may not be as committed. Cooper is proud of himself (as he should be), but instead of allowing the text to do the talking as he did in his debut feature, we see this hubris show through the craft this time around. Not enlightening his audience to a notable figure's creative process through an exploration of the creative process, but instead shoving said intent down their throats.

Bradley Cooper stars as composer Leonard Bernstein in a biopic he also co-wrote and directed.
Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix - © 2023 Netflix, Inc.

Maybe that's too far, maybe I'm overreading, and maybe Maestro simply wasn't the movie I expected it to be, but I'm hesitant to believe as much even if I can't blame it for being such. This is a sometimes angry, but even more – a very conflicted film that never has the nerve to say what it would really like to say. Every time the film builds to a moment in which we are set to see Bernstein do what he does best, what he was known for, what he made a living from – whether that be in conduction or composing – Cooper cuts away to people talking or doing drugs or something else of the same, seemingly meaningless ilk; edits that have no purpose or point in the larger scheme of the storytelling, but more function only as a way to build to the hour and a half mark at which point Bernstein's leading of the London Symphony Orchestra in the conclusion of Mahler's 2nd at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England in 1973 comes out of nowhere in an effort to feel like the climax of the film before a long denouement of death featuring Carey Mulligan's Felicia Montealegre. What is it the film is angry about? What is it the film would like to say, but hardly scratches the surface of? They are not the same answer, but both dwell on the relationship between Bernstein and Montealegre who were married for twenty-seven years from 1951 up until Felicia's death in 1978. For those who don't know the specifics of Bernstein's life and preferences this development may come as something of a shock given the film opens with Cooper's titular maestro in bed with fellow musician David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Thus, much of Cooper's feature dwells on the couple traversing Bernstein's desires and reconciling them with the genuine love he and Felicia share and have built a life upon. 

To this extent, Maestro is as much a film about Montealegre as it is about Bernstein. In fact, it may be more so Mulligan's movie even if it is Cooper’s production. Still, it is this facet within the character of Felicia that is almost a one for one with the film's central flaw: both find it difficult to be honest with themselves and even when they are, both eventually recess into how they'd like things to be rather than accepting them for what they are. Yes, it was a different time and as the film begins in the forties with the bulk of it taking place in the fifties and sixties there is an understanding to Bernstein not feeling safe in fully embracing who he so clearly was, but like Bernstein the film can't seem to accept itself for what it is and what it needs to be despite being poured into by people who clearly believe in and love it for all the potential it possesses. It would make sense then why the single take scene that occurs at the halfway point of the film and takes place on Thanksgiving Day where Felicia and Leonard finally hash out their feelings and issues with one another after a night apart is the best scene in the movie…it’s the most honest one. It's a given the performances are electric, but it is also the only time in the film where everything coalesces in a natural, honest manner; it's a moment the remainder of the film, behind or in front of it, is constantly chasing yet never comes close to again; both the true thesis and culmination of the film – it’s kind of breathtaking. 

Carey Mulligan is Bernstein's wife, Felicia, whose story is as much a part of Maestro as her husbands.
Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix - © 2023 Netflix, Inc.

Despite the outward similarities and Cooper's clear determination to make this feel as different as possible from his first film, Maestro is still a film centered around music starring Cooper in a central role yet pushes the female character to the center of the narrative. Mulligan happily takes up the responsibility bestowed upon her as she not only lends the film a much needed balance to counter Bernstein’s egotistical and often smug presence (despite his children’s endorsement of Cooper and his film, this doesn't exactly paint the guy as a present or affectionate father), but also delivers what is both a measured and equally over-the-top performance that is by far the most complex aspect of the story the film is conveying. Cooper separates this film from his first by largely working within single take, single position camera set-ups with little to no movement in order to capture a screenplay (that Cooper co-wrote with Josh Singer) which essentially works as a string of conversations we're eavesdropping in on. It's an effective choice as it pulls us into both the world and dynamics of these people, but for all the set, make-up, and costume design that went into recreating time periods and establishing an aesthetic it feels undone by the pacing and editing. It's a film begging to be a half hour longer but has been condensed down as much as it possibly could resulting in that string of conversations feeling more disjointed than artfully done with a plan or a purpose. 

I had to make peace with these conclusions as I didn't want this to be the case given my love and adoration for both Cooper and A Star is Born, but working through these feelings around what I wanted this to be, what I wanted this to achieve in terms of the impact it had on me and how I actually felt as I took the film in and realized in real time what this was and, more importantly, what it wasn't made me realize the film's greatest sin was that of letting its work show. A Star is Born felt both inherently and effortlessly cool, but with Maestro it's as if you can see how hard Cooper is striving to be what he hopes it will achieve. To quote the eternal wisdom of Channing Tatum's character from 21 Jump Street, "Look at him, he's trying."

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