Bradley Cooper’s Maestro orchestrates an extraordinary journey through the world of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s music, delivering a symphony of emotion and talent that resonates long after the credits roll. With an artful blend of narrative depth, masterful performances, and an exploration of the complexities behind artistic genius, the film serves as an ode to the power of music while forming a picture of a sympathetic, tortured artist.
The film is a poignant portrayal of Bernstein’s life and struggles. Renowned for his iconic compositions such as the score for the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, three symphonies, and his famous Mass (1971), Bernstein’s journey is brought to life through Cooper’s immersive storytelling and attention to detail. Building on the success of his 2018 directorial debut A Star is Born, Cooper’s talent soars in his sophomore feature.
Director: Bradley Cooper
Release date: October 15, 2023 (LFF)
Rating: Not yet rated
Set against the backdrop of the bustling classical music scene in New York, starting with his explosive debut as a composer at Carnegie Hall in 1943, and spanning decades until the 1970s, Maestro unravels the story of a troubled but prodigiously gifted conductor. Switching back and forth between monochrome and technicolour, the film guides us through the story by efficiently showing us which decade we’re in without any cumbersome dialogue cues. Portrayed with unrelenting fervour by Cooper in the lead role, Bernstein is at once complex and playful, charming and enigmatic.
One of the striking aspects of Cooper’s dedication to the role was the extensive transformation he underwent to embody Bernstein: he spent at least five hours each day in hair and makeup. The intricate process involved the use of prosthetics, including a unique application inside his nose, altering the timbre of his voice. While some critics raised concerns about the possibility of an anti-Semitic portrayal, Bernstein’s children were closely involved in the project and affirmed that the representation was faithful to their father’s appearance, not a derogatory caricature.
A Jewish-American, Bernstein grappled with his complex identity, compounded by his bisexuality, which often caused internal turmoil and periods of profound melancholy in his life. Cooper delicately navigates these tumultuous emotional landscapes, capturing the inner conflicts that Bernstein faced due to societal pressures and personal struggles.
Cooper’s directorial finesse guides the audience through the tempestuous life of the maestro, skilfully navigating the highs and lows of his tumultuous career and personal life. The film’s evocative cinematography weaves an immersive tapestry, capturing the grandeur of the concert halls and the intimacy of the composer’s private world with equal attention to detail.
Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife, adds depth and nuance to the narrative (even though Mulligan is playing a Chilean-American, which gives the uncomfortable feeling that she’s been somewhat miscast in the role). Nevertheless, she purposefully depicts the complexity of their relationship, showcasing the challenges and strains that arose from Bernstein’s extramarital romantic involvements with men. The film delves into the dynamics of their marriage, highlighting the delicate balance between love, loyalty, and personal fulfilment.
In addition to the protagonist, the ensemble cast of Maestro delivers stellar performances, breathing life into a diverse array of characters who orbit the maestro’s thunderous universe. Sarah Silverman and Maya Hawke deliver compelling performances in their supporting roles, bringing additional layers to the story as Bernstein’s sister and eldest daughter, respectively. Their presence amplifies the familial complexities that influenced Bernstein’s life, further contributing to the intricate emotional tapestry woven by Cooper.
At the heart of Maestro lies its exploration of the interplay between artistic passion and personal demons. Cooper’s meticulous attention to character development allows the audience to delve deep into the psyche of the protagonist, unravelling layers of ambition, insecurities, and relentless pursuit of perfection. The film delves into the internal conflicts and external pressures faced by the composer, shedding light on the sacrifices demanded by artistic greatness
The film’s most striking moments revolve around Bernstein’s exceptional talent as a conductor. Cooper masterfully captures the essence of these performances, transporting the audience into the heart of Bernstein’s musical genius. The impeccable orchestration and choir sequences resonate powerfully, enveloping viewers in the sheer brilliance and emotional depth of Bernstein’s compositions.
The musical performances in Maestro are nothing short of breathtaking. A particularly memorable sequence sees the music build to an impressive denouement, supported by a whole orchestra, four-part choir, and soloists, which literally makes the room (and certainly the theatre of our screening) vibrate as if alive. With an immaculate blend of sweeping orchestral compositions and poignant solo performances, the film captures the transformative power of music.
Many of the scenes are underscored by music so loud it may as well be diegetic: in one scene when Bernstein and his cohorts approach the house, a sense of mischief in the air, the distinctive Jets and Sharks score from West Side Story looms large over the scene. The thoughtful sound design coupled with the seamless integration of music within the narrative elevates the film to another plane, creating a sensory experience that truly reverberates with viewers.
Cooper’s deft direction is complemented by the film’s cinematography, transitioning between outdoor landscapes and the more intimate world of the theatre. His prowess is evident in the film’s pacing, which strikes a harmonious balance between poignant introspection and gripping momentum. The narrative unfolds with a measured cadence, allowing the audience to savour the emotional nuances of each scene while remaining engaged in the broader arc of the maestro’s life. These features all serve to keep Maestro compelling through to the very end.
Maestro encapsulates a sombre and bittersweet mood, reflecting the complexities of Bernstein’s life. While celebrated as a genius in his field, Bernstein’s inner conflicts and personal dilemmas underscore the film’s underlying melancholy. Cooper’s sensitive portrayal brings to light the profound impact of societal expectations and personal struggles on the life of a musical legend, ultimately leaving a lasting impression on audiences.
Maestro offers a cinematic experience that seamlessly marries the visual splendour of the classical music world with the private life of a very well-known public figure. With its poignant narrative, stunning performances, and evocative musical compositions, the film strikes a resonant chord, leaving an indelible impression on viewers. The film garnered an ovation in my screening for its beautiful and poignant portrayal of Bernstein’s life and I’ve no doubt it’ll become well-loved on its general release towards the end of the year.