‘Maestro’ Review: More So-So Than Virtuoso
“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”
If that’s the definition of a work of art then Maestro ... kind of isn’t one? It is handsome, it is well-acted, and its booming orchestral score sounds incredible (not that most people will get to appreciate that streaming the film on Netflix). Yet Maestro does not provoke many questions about Leonard Bernstein — except perhaps wondering why this biography of such an important musical figure of the 20th century devotes so little time and energy to the creation of his music.
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Instead, Cooper — who, in true maestro fashion, not only stars as Bernstein but directs, co-writes, and co-produces the film as well — focuses squarely on the composer and conductor’s relationship with his wife, Felicia, played by Carey Mulligan. For sure, theirs was a complex marriage. When the two first meet at a party in 1946, Bernstein is in a relationship with a man (Matt Bomer). Later, after “Lenny” and Felicia get married, the former resumes his dalliances with men, sometimes in full view of his wife in their own Manhattan home. Maestro considers how Bernstein could commit such betrayals while still harboring such deep feelings of love and admiration for Felicia — and why she would keep his secrets and even to some degree permit them.
Both Cooper and Mulligan adopt high society accents, and during their early courtship they banter back and forth like characters in a screwball comedy directed by Robert Altman. The ups and downs of their marriage are occasionally paused so Bernstein can conduct an orchestra in a performance of glorious, soaring classical music — and when he concludes these concerts he often races off-stage to passionately embrace Felicia, the personal and the public colliding together in an exuberant display of emotions. But little other consideration is given to Bernstein the artist, the composer of symphonies, film scores, and musicals like West Side Story. People tell us about Bernstein’s genius, but beyond those concerts, we don’t really see much of it.
Bernstein may have been known for conducting large groups of musicians, but Maestro is really a duet between Cooper and Mulligan. Few of the other members of the cast make much of an impression. (Sarah Silverman has a few largely inconsequential scenes as Bernstein’s sister Shirley; Maya Hawke appears as the couple’s oldest daughter Jamie.) Although there was a lot of talk prior to the film’s release about its use of prosthetic makeup used to turn Cooper into a middle-aged Jewish man, the end result in Maestro is not distracting — and in fact, the film’s handful of scenes featuring an elderly Bernstein in his final years showcase maybe the most realistic and convincing old man prosthetic makeup I have ever seen in a motion picture.
And that’s just one technically superb aspect of an extremely well-made production, with beautiful black and white and color photography by Matthew Libatique, stylish period costumes by Mark Bridges, and imaginative and dreamlike scene transitions edited by Michelle Tesoro. (The impressive opening sequence seamlessly blends a god’s eye view of a young Bernstein racing out of his apartment to his arrival in Carnegie Hall for his first time conducting the New York Philharmonic, then flies out of the balcony onto the stage and back to Bernstein, all without a visible cut.) When Bernstein’s concerts swell on the soundtrack, the immersive sound design envelops you in wondrous music — provided your home theater is equipped to handle it.
Cooper nails Bernstein’s unique voice and mannerism, and Mulligan brings grace and class to Felicia. When her health takes a turn for the worse in the 1970s, Mulligan (and Cooper) treat her illness with enormous humanity and warmth. This couple’s connection feels authentic and lived in — but I must confess that at a certain point I began to feel like an additional dimension was missing, some sort of tangible connection between Bernstein’s outward persona and his marital stresses, or between his sexuality (and the steps he took to hide it) and his musical output.
What you are left with, then, is a showcase for two very good actors who are very good together, a magnificent score that will probably be great to listen to as a soundtrack album, and some very striking visual moments spread out across two hours. It seems to me that one of the big reasons to make a movie about Leonard Bernstein (i.e. the work) is mostly the stuff Cooper cut out of Maestro — an unorthodox approach that’s ultimately a little frustrating. If that was supposed to be the tension referred to in Maestro’s opening Bernstein quote, then I guess Cooper achieved his goal. If we’re meant to leave the theater (or the Netflix app) haunted by lingering mysteries or ambiguities about Bernstein, then maybe he didn’t.