Love Movie


With “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper tells the story of a generation-defining artistic innovator in the most traditional way possible: through the familiar tropes and linear narrative of a standard biopic.

Directing and starring as the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Cooper has crafted a film that’s technically dazzling but emotionally frustrating. The script he co-wrote with Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) follows a well-trod, episodic path: This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Ultimately, it falls into the same trap as so many biopics, especially prestige pictures with major award aspirations: In covering a huge swath of an extremely famous person’s life, it ends up feeling superficial.

And yet, you should see it. Yes, this sounds contradictory, but “Maestro” is so consistently spectacular from an aesthetic perspective that it’s worth watching. The cinematography, costumes, and production design are all evocative and precise as they evolve with the times over 40 some-odd years of Bernstein’s life. Behind the camera, Cooper takes a big swing in making you feel as if you’re watching a movie that was made in the ’40s and continues to do so with each era. Shooting in high-contrast black and white and Academy ratio, Matthew Libatique—an Oscar nominee as director of photography on Cooper’s debut feature, “A Star Is Born”—works wonders with a single light bulb on a barren stage, for example. There’s a shot where Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre, who will become Bernstein’s wife, steps off a bus at night and walks up the street to the party where she’ll meet him for the first time, and it’s breathtaking in its cinematic authenticity. The lush Technicolor of scenes set in the ‘60s and ’70 offers its own vibrant allure. And inspired transitions from editor Michelle Tesoro carry the story across time and place in thrilling fashion.

Cooper has clearly taken great care in getting the details right, big and small. That includes spending six years learning how to conduct to perfect a particularly essential scene: a six-plus minute recreation of Bernstein leading the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973. (Yannick Nézet-Séguin was Cooper’s crucial conducting consultant.) The camera roams fluidly across the orchestra, choir, and soloists, the music overtaking his entire body and booming throughout this majestic edifice. Bernstein is passionate and rapturous with perspiration; this is the apex of his joy. The whole film is worth seeing in a theater before it begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20, but this lengthy, cathartic moment is one you’ll want to experience with the best possible picture and sound.

But while Bernstein’s music is woven throughout—including an amusing use of his “West Side Story” prologue during a period of marital discord—we never truly understand him deeply as a musician or a man. He’s a legend, a larger-than-life cultural force in mid-century America whose persona extends far beyond the rarefied circles of the classical music world. But the necessarily performative nature of Bernstein’s existence, as a closeted gay man, keeps us at a distance as viewers, too. Fully aware of his brilliance and increasing celebrity, he was always “on.” We spy a few glimmers of his intimate happiness with various men, including Matt Bomer as a clarinetist ex-boyfriend, with whom he shares a heartbreaking, tearful farewell on a Manhattan sidewalk. But a tantalizing, unfulfilled quality to the characterization lingers throughout.

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