Maestro — Bradley Cooper’s cinematic symphony — soars


There’s an old dictum in screenwriting: start late and end early. The idea is to boil every scene down to its essentials. That spirit carries throughout the remarkable new film Maestro which Bradley Cooper directed, co-wrote and starred as the iconic composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

While the story stretches from 1943 to 1989, Cooper sketches Bernstein’s life with a series of vignettes, glimpses of success and frustration scattered over decades. Like music notes on a page, each builds to the next. The result is a cinematic symphony that is itself an ode to a complicated kind of love. 

The film opens in a black box of a sort, the bright lights of New York City smothered behind a heavy curtain as young Bernstein lounges in bed with his lover. The phone rings, and it’s destiny calling, a chance to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, broadcast live across the country. 

Ecstatic, Bernstein rips back the curtain, yelling “You got ’em boy!” Then, as if to capture the sense of excitement, Cooper bends space and time as the conductor bursts out of his apartment, dashing down the hallway to arrive in Carnegie Hall in one fluid camera movement.

WATCH | The official trailer for Maestro:

A film about feelings

It doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to. For a film about a man who only truly felt free behind the podium, Maestro is a film about feelings, capturing the giddy thrill of an orchestra in full flight, the symphony soaring as the conductor raises his arms to the heavens. 

It is also the story Cooper has been dreaming of telling for years. Before A Star is Born and The Hangover, he was a kid growing up outside Philadelphia.

As Cooper told CBS News, watching cartoons such as Bugs Bunny conducting was what first inspired his interest. When he was eight, he asked Santa for a baton.

Cooper later told Maestro executive producer Steven Spielberg that as a child, he would play Bernstein records and imagine himself leading the orchestra. 

But enthusiasm is not enough to step into the persona of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most recognizable figures of modern classical music. 

Cooper on set in costume as Bernstein as he frames a shot with Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre. (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

For the physical aspects, make-up artist Kazu Hiro, who transformed Gary Oldman into Winston Churchhill, was recruited to blend Cooper into Bernstein.

Hiro created a series of distinct looks to capture the different decades, including a prosthetic nose. While news that the non-Jew Cooper used a fake nose to play the Jewish composer created an initial backlash, the effect is quite subtle.

Not only does Cooper already have a prominent nose, but the make-up is so much more than that, capturing the deep lines, the eventual liver spots, even the wispy silver hairs on elderly Bernstein’s arms in scenes that bookend the film. 

For all the make-up and hours of daily preparation, Cooper does some of his best acting with his eyes.

When we first met young Lenny they’re delicate and shining, especially as the composer spots the love of his life, Felicia Montealegre. Just before they meet at a party, Cooper sets the scene; when Felicia gets off a bus, the lush music of Bernstein’s On the Town swells as she steps into the light. 

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. .
Cooper and Mulligan star as Bernstein and Montealegre in Maestro. For all the makeup and hours of daily preparation, Eli Glasner writes that Cooper does some of his best acting with his eyes. (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

The woman in the wings

This was part of Cooper’s initial inspiration, setting Bernstein’s music — selections from West Side Story, Candide, Mass and more — to accompany his life story. 

But if Maestro is a cinematic symphony, the musical motif it revolves around is the woman in the wings, his wife, Felicia Montealegre.

There’s a bit of Katherine Hepburn to Carey Mulligan’s take on Felicia. The same rat-a-tat rhythms of her speech and certainly Hepburn’s independent streak.

When they meet, Felicia has her own life and career. She’s a rising star on Broadway with seemingly no illusions about the man she loves, telling Lenny, “I know exactly who you are.” 

As Bernstein himself says at one point, “I love people so much it’s hard to be alone.” But his appetites are never clearer than during a daring dance sequence when the young composer shows Montealegre a number from On the Town featuring a trio of dancing sailors. As one dancer beckons, it’s clear Lenny wants more than the woman next to him.

In a blink, the scene shifts, and now it’s Bernstein in the sailor suit, Cooper cavorting and strutting, and as men and woman rush in, the scene ends with outstretched hands fading into two pairs of feet intertwined under sheets.

Lenny and Felicia are alone at last, at least for the moment.  

 Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro.
Mulligan turns in a strong performance as the woman who loved Bernstein with eyes wide open. (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

As the film progresses from black and white to the rich, earthy Kodak colours of the 1970s, Cooper pulls back on the cinematic stunts to focus on the cost of Felicia’s choice.

At the outset, she talked about sacrifice, seemingly wanting to support and nourish Bernstein’s talents. But the strain of the façade begins to show. It’s easier for Lenny, the great artist, who talks about artists casting off anything that restrains them. 

In a later scene Lenny pulls into Bernstein’s actual Connecticut home, where their children, now teens, are gathered. With the Jets theme from West Side Story bouncing in the background Lenny and his many man friends tumble out of the car. But when Bernstein celebrates the completion of the theatre piece Mass, as the rest of the family applauds, Felicia bolts, plunging into the swimming pool fully clothed. 

Cooper frames the moment with a slow close-up, the camera pushing in on Bernstein laughing at first, then his smile fading as the moment of realization dawns, seeing Felicia hiding in the serene blue water, perhaps the only refuge from his ego.  

WATCH | Behind the scenes on the set of Maestro:

An unbridled sense of joy

But there she is, at what is arguably the pinnacle of Maestro, a stunning performance in the Ely Cathedral for the performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony

You can compare for yourself the real archive recording of the event, versus Cooper’s recreation, seen below. 

While Cooper prepared for six years, studying with Canada’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, what Maestro captures in the scene is more than mimicry.

What connects the real and the recreation is the unbridled sense of joy. As the cathedral vibrates with the voices soaring, the violinists bowing themselves into a frenzy, Cooper as Bernstein is in thrall — his hair a sweaty mess, the baton a blur.

WATCH | Maestro’s version of Bernstein’s stunning performance:

He is the conductor as the conduit, and afterward, as always, there she is, embracing, celebrating, telling him, “There’s no hate. There’s no hate in your heart.” 

Maestro is open in select theatres now, coming to Netflix Dec. 20. 

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