MAESTRO is the straight-to-Netflix biopic of composer, conductor, music educator etc. Leonard Bernstein. It stars and is directed by Bradley Cooper (THE A-TEAM), who co-wrote it with Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT, THE POST, FIRST MAN). Cooper is no stranger to playing troubled artists, of course, having captured the world’s imagination as Leon Kaufman, the death obsessed photographer in THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, but this is his most show-offy acting piece ever. He plays gay Jewish upper class intellectual, does a voice and accent, ages about 45 years with varying levels of prosthetics and padding, plays piano, conducts a real orchestra, even throws in an imagined dance sequence just to give himself more lessons to have to take. I’m surprised he never speaks German, rides a horse or skydives.
As a director he’s also flexing and back-flipping with numerous large scale sequences, detailed depictions of multiple time periods, shooting in both black-and-white and color, and occasionally sliding between realism and fantasy. It shows so much effort and enthusiasm it’s sure to annoy the shit out of many, but fuck ‘em. I enjoyed it.
Here’s what I knew about Bernstein going in: he has something to do with classical music, right? The guy Lydia Tár always name-dropped. When they alluded to his score for WEST SIDE STORY I remembered Oh yeah, I knew that. The movie begins with him as a melancholic 70-year-old legend, skips back to his big break in 1943, filling in as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, shows his career blooming as he struggles between his potential to become “the first great American conductor” and all the other shit he wants to do, in art and in life. (We’ve all been there.) But what I appreciate is that it feels very different from the average biopic because it assumes you either know about the guy already or (in my case) know how to use Google. It doesn’t try to give you a fuckin class presentation. Do I know why this guy is important in classical music? Doesn’t really matter – only matters that the people in this world consider him to be, and that that affects the way he lives. We see bits of all kinds of things he’s up to musically over the years, but I never felt like it was trying to lay out a timeline or get to all the greatest hits. It’s more like background to the story of his relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan, DRIVE), who charms and impresses him at a party when he’s just blowing up and she’s a budding stage actress.
One reason this is notable is that we’ve already seen him wake up naked next to David Oppenheim (no relation) (Matt Bomer, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING) and play bongos on his ass before running to conduct the symphony. Leonard’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman, WAY OF THE GUN) has been trying to set up Felicia with movie stars (heterosexual male ones) and is clearly surprised and confused when her brother starts hanging out with her. But it doesn’t seem like she ever mentions why.
I really like that ambiguity in the storytelling. So much about their lives are never spelled out. Is he a bisexual man who fell in love with and married a woman, or a gay man who liked her enough as a friend to use her as a beard? And what is her understanding of all this? When they decide to get married she tells him very seriously, “I know exactly who you are,” and I honestly don’t know whether this is her telling him “I get it, I’m okay with it” or whether it’s her being totally clueless. Or maybe even being clueless about the specific matter of his sexuality but otherwise being correct that she understands him more deeply than other people do. There are many interpretations that make sense and all of them are interesting.
Years later she’s noticing him flirting with young men at parties and we don’t know if it’s a bomb about to go off, a slow sinking realization, or what. When she confronts him about it it’s clear she has some knowledge of what he’s up to but they have an arrangement for him not to embarrass her by being “sloppy.” We still don’t know the specifics or how long they’ve agreed to this, if he’s getting more flagrant, or if she’s just not as cool with it as she thought she was.
Part of what I get out of this is that people and their lives are complicated and don’t always fit into these categories and boxes we try to describe them with. Lenny can be mostly a gay man but also very much in love with this woman he built his life with, for various reasons, good and bad. It can be wrong that he felt pressured by society to hide his true self, while also having some positive results, like his relationships with Felicia and their children.
For me one of the most gut-wrenching scenes is later in their marriage, when Felicia demands Lenny talk to their daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke, ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD), who’s upset about gossip she’s been hearing. Felicia says to be “discreet” and “Don’t you dare tell her the truth” so he tells her people are making stuff up about him because they’re jealous. At first it seems painful because she must be able to tell how full of shit he is, right? But the real kicker is when she buys it and tells him what a relief it is. Devastating.
There are even sadder parts in the movie, or maybe they’re just triggering to me personally. In a relatively short amount of screen time it captures the experience of having a terminally ill loved one with unusual accuracy. But it’s also a fun movie both for the big cinematic moments (the long take conducting scene, the big emotional argument scene being staged in front of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade) and the small details (the funny things he says, the funny ways he says them, the way he shares his tray of cocaine). To me it’s as much about enjoying watching these people as it is about those other things – love, death, art, etc. – and Cooper was wise enough to open with a great quote from Bernstein that works as instructions for how to process it all: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”
As a director, Cooper could have emulated the flying eyeball cinema of Ryuhei Kitamura, but I remember reading that he learned a bunch from working with Clint Eastwood on AMERICAN SNIPER, and his debut A STAR IS BORN (2018) had a certain Clint-like simplicity to it. Yes, it must’ve been a difficult role in the amount of musical performance he had to learn, and in having to shoot scenes on stages with crowds. And to talk like Sam Elliott. But it’s simple in that it’s an old fashioned story, already told multiple times, that’s powered almost entirely by the songs and the romantic chemistry of these two lead performances. And I can’t think of another movie that I can go to people with such a wide range of tastes and have them all say, sounding kind of surprised, “You know what? I loved that movie.”
For his sophomore project here he got a case of the ol’ ambition, spent five years making it, reportedly six years training for it. I have no idea if somebody who knows conducting would watch it and say “This is bullshit, he’s doing it all wrong,” but even if they would, can you imagine the balls it takes to stand up in a room full of highly skilled classical musicians and say “Yeah, I know, I’m the guy from THE HANGOVER, but can you pretend I’m conducting you?” and then spend however fucking long it took them to make it seem real to the rest of us? He gets more and more animated and sweaty with the music and at the end it seems like his glorious triumph even though it was the musicians (and the camera crew) who did most of the work.
I think Cooper seems to have more interest in the technical side of filmmaking than many actors turned directors, or at least he’s picked a good team. Hats off to editor Michelle Tesoro (SHOT CALLER), production designer Kevin Thompson (KIDS, 54, YOUNG ADULT, OKJA) and cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Libatique is Darren Aranofsky’s guy going back to PI, also became Spike Lee’s guy for a while (SHE HATE ME, INSIDE MAN, MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, CHI-RAQ), also shot the first two IRON MAN movies and the first VENOM and the only BIRDS OF PREY not to mention the fake-one-take video “What U See Is What U Get” by Xzibit. So he’s in my hall of fame.
You also gotta give it up to the makeup in this one. I feel like there are people who automatically say old age makeup is bad when it’s on a celebrity, because they know what the celebrity normally looks like so they have defeated it by knowing it’s an illusion. I don’t know if anyone’s doing that with this one, but I will just note that I barely ever thought about it except to occasionally realize how incredibly real it looks. I have since learned that it’s the creation of Kazu Hiro, who worked on Kurosawa’s RHAPSODY IN AUGUST as a young man, then moved to L.A. to work for Rick Baker. He worked on HELLBOY, NORBIT and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, turned Joseph Gordon-Levitt into Bruce Willis on LOOPER, retired for five years but Gary Oldman remembered him from when he almost played the villain in PLANET OF THE APES, and talked him into making him Winston Churchill for THE DARKEST HOUR (winning Hiro his first Oscar. Second was BOMBSHELL). Seems like the guy is good.
Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are both producers on MAESTRO, because both almost directed it. Scorsese stepped aside to do THE IRISHMAN. Spielberg took over and brought Cooper on to star, but then saw A STAR IS BORN, told him he should direct it, and went to do WEST SIDE STORY. So it worked out for everyone involved as well as everyone on earth who watches movies.
Anyway it’s cool to see a horror icon like Cooper occasionally branching out to show his other passions. MAESTRO is kinda like his MUSIC OF THE HEART.