Oscar Watch 2023: Maestro


Biopics are generally pretty bad, right? As a society, we’ve essentially deemed that biographical films on an artist or person’s life tend to be schmaltzy, sensationalized, and often dull. There are certainly some exceptions, such as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and even last year’s Oppenheimer, but those use their historical figures and settings to tell a story beyond the subject. Maestro does not.

I promise that I’m not picking on Flixist’s staff with this series, but Sian Francis-Cox wrote in her review, “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.” I don’t agree with that.

Maybe some of my confusion comes from not knowing a whole lot about Leonard Bernstein, but Maestro does a shockingly poor job of explaining anything about the man and his struggles. Framed from the perspective of an elderly Bernstein (played by Bradley Cooper throughout) recounting his time with his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), the movie attempts to be artsy in the beginning by showcasing different moments as if they are being portrayed on stage. It then loses that angle and just goes with the standard method of picking random ass scenes.


© Netflix

I think that is ultimately my biggest gripe with Maestro. Bradley Cooper proved he was a solid director with his version of A Star is Born, but I think his love of Bernstein clouded his judgment here. Instead of providing a comprehensive look at Bernstein’s life or highlighting the faults the man had, Cooper goes for daring camera tricks and costume/set design above all else. Maestro is often a dazzling film to look at, but it has the depth of a puddle.

As the film ticked on and on, I struggled to figure out what the point was. Was the movie trying to focus on Bernstein’s tumultuous inner life? Was it a dedication to his wife’s steadfast dedication to him in bad times? Was it about the music he created? Shockingly, this film about a legendary composer features barely any of his music, though it makes sure to throw in R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

I guess some of that is likely down to licensing issues. Bernstein’s most famous work is West Side Story which recently got a second film adaptation that is indirectly owned by Disney. Maestro is a Netflix production, so I guess the cost was too much to feature any of the noteworthy songs from Bernstein’s career. At least we got a prosthetic nose?

© Netflix

Yeah, I’m still not sure how I feel about Bradley Cooper wearing a prosthetic nose to look more like Bernstein. On the one hand, it beats out Tom Hanks’ goblin nose in 2022’s Elvis. On the other hand, it teeters on the line of being racially insensitive, but then reportedly Bernstein’s family was involved with the production. The worst crime is that Carey Mulligan is overacting so much that she comes off as a caricature of Felicia instead of an actual person.

The moment that made me give up any hope of enjoying Maestro came toward the end of the film. Leonard has just come home from a production on Thanksgiving Day and is walking around in something of a mess. He goes to talk with Felicia and the two spend about seven minutes yelling at each other. The phony accents, stationary camera, and just boring cinematography suck the air out of the production. It’s easily the worst moment, but it exemplifies what biopics often fail to accomplish: feeling like real stories.

I’m certain Bernstein fought with his wife throughout their marriage. He was frequently unfaithful to her, though a lot of that was down to his ambiguous sexuality and a fear of outright saying he was gay or bi, so I’m sure she was aggravated. The thing is, there is no build-up to this moment and even if there had been, the dialogue is hokey and toothless. It comes off like a high school production of Bernstein’s life instead of a major Hollywood picture.

© Netflix

Following her death in the film, there’s also no undercurrent of sadness or anger or… anything. Film Bernstein seems to get over the whole situation rather quickly. His kids don’t reflect on her passing and despite the final shot in the film being of Felicia turning away from the camera, it was like she didn’t really matter. It’s a confusing mess of storytelling which results in a film that feels more like a “greatest hits” compilation of Bernstein’s life rather than any cohesive story. But then it’s also not even that.

I have to wonder why the Academy nominated this film in the first place. 2022’s odd man out was Elvis, which had similar problems with its narrative structure. Attempting to boil down someone’s decades-long career into a two-hour film is always going to be a fool’s errand, but Maestro truly feels as if Bradley Cooper wasn’t told no at some point. I can’t presume to know how Cooper wrote and directed this project, but I imagine that the producers or executive producers were likely hands-off, leading to the messy result.

I know Cooper loves Bernstein. I also know a lot of other uncomfortable tidbits about his life due to the recent press junket for Maestro. Cooper is very raw and realistic when it comes to interviews, but that desire to be authentic with your fans and the press doesn’t really inform what went wrong with this movie. Did Cooper’s love for Bernstein prevent him from going full-on into the messier aspects of Bernstein’s life? Did Cooper’s consultation with Bernstein’s family excise certain scenes that may have formed a logical plot? Did Bernstein’s penchant for using the toilet with the door open lead to Cooper adopting that same behavior?

© Netflix

I’m mostly spinning the tires at this point on what else to say about Maestro. It’s far from the worst picture to ever be nominated for “Best Picture,” but I’m struggling to say anything else nice about it. I don’t buy into the movie being bad because Cooper annoyed people with his Oscar campaign. That maybe didn’t win him favors as a person, but Maestro’s problems go well beyond Cooper’s peculiarities.

At the very least, I think I’m pretty much over the craze of watching celebrities impersonate other celebrities. I know Oppenheimer was praised for its depiction of history and Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of its titular character, but that was also a film done with actual tact and a lens on the failings of its protagonist. Maestro is not that.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.