Director: Bradley Cooper
Writer: Bradley Cooper, Josh Singer
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman
Producers: Bradley Cooper, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Fred Berner, Amy Durning, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 129mins
What’s the story: The rise of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) from the 1940s to the 1980s, his sexual fluidity, and marriage to soulmate Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan).
What’s the verdict: Leonard Bernstein was a genius musician. A conductor, composer, and teacher who changed the landscape of post-World War II American music. Or at least that’s what I hear. I certainly didn’t get any of that from Bradley Cooper’s exactly-what-you-think-it’s-going-to-be vanity project.
Using all the money Netflix is willing to throw at yet another celeb to do whatever the hell they want, Cooper acts, Acts, ACTS, and directs, Directs, DIRECTS his way through Maestro. But when it comes to write, Write, WRITING… not so much. Cooper would likely say he didn’t want to give the audience a dull biopic that just apes a PBS documentary. If that’s the case, we suggest Brad isn’t challenging himself enough. Look at the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy. Or Soderbergh’s Liberace movie, Behind the Candelabra. Both are textbook examples of how to show a genius creating in a way that engages the audience.
Instead of this we get a film of two halves. The first tracks Bernstein’s rise to fame, his exuberant homosexuality, a brief aside on how antisemitism could have stalled his career, and his courtship of Costa Rican activist Felicia. The camera swoops and dives like director Cooper is cosplaying Scorsese. Leonard Bernstein’s music booms through the speakers. None of it raises the temperature of the room.
The second half is more involving purely because the film depicts the selfishness beneath the genius, and slips into trusty Disease of the Week territory. Yes, it resembles a way above average Lifetime movie, but the bitterness, recrimination, indiscreet infidelities, lies, and illness at least puts a pulse into the story.
The controversy around the make-up and use of prosthetic noses seems unwarranted. Much like make-up designer Kazu Hiro’s work on Darkest Hour, the prosthetics here are a tool to transform Cooper into his subject. More of a problem is the lack of anything other than surface level psychological interest Cooper shows in Bernstein. You get a greater sense of the conductor from that clip in Tár than in Maestro. Perhaps Bernstein’s relationship with Felicia was as depicted in the film. But, like Bohemian Rhapsody Maestro leaves the impression that its subject homosexuality impeded the most important relationship in his life. And we all know how fake BoRhap was.
Speaking of fake, a scene in a chapel of Bernstein conducting in trademark flamboyant style, Cooper begins to resemble a deep fake of c.1978 Steve Martin. It’s an odd moment, but more interesting than the scenes around it.
The actor should have confined himself to acting. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, both attached as directors in the past, are credited as producers. What they could have done with this! Look at what Spielberg did with Bernstein’s music in West Side Story. But, Cooper is his usual polished self in front of the camera, and the top-billed Mulligan steals the show as the increasingly suffering, clipped-toned Felicia. More insight is granted into why she remained in a doomed relationship than why Bernstein did. Of the supporting cast, Maya Hawke stands out as their daughter Jamie Bernstein. Sarah Silverman, here playing Bernstein’s sister, is another welcome presence.
And some stylistic decisions land. Good times are shown in black and white, the more complicated period in colour. Cooper and A Star is Born cinematographer Matthew Libatique are the latest filmmakers to remind us how dynamic the 4:3 aspect ratio can be (see also this year’s Saltburn, or Oppenheimer in IMAX).
But Maestro is another Netflix movie that might bag a couple of Oscars, but will be swallowed and forgotten by the algorithm two weeks after release.