By Naomi Roper
Bradley Cooper is a fascinating individual. Deeply private, yet nakedly ambitious in a way that would usually see a person dismissed as “thirsty” he has come a very long way from his early days playing a supporting role opposite Jennifer Garner on Alias. Maestro is his sophomore directing effort and it is both utterly shameless Oscar bait and exceptionally good. Maestro is a glittering unashamedly old fashioned musical epic examining the life of the legend that is Leonard Bernstein.
Cooper plays Bernstein both as a young and enthusiastic composer (in pristine black and white no less) and then later in glorious colour as the older Bernstein grapples with both his legacy & a strained marriage while indulging in his fondness for younger men.
Playing opposite Cooper is Carey Mulligan, using her very best clipped RP old timey radio voice as Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre A luminous Mulligan is the heart and soul of the film as a woman whose career never shone quite as brightly as her husband’s and who has to cope with only having a sliver of his attention. While Cooper arguably has more chemistry with Matt Bomer in their brief scenes together there is an immense warmth to his pairing with Mulligan especially in later sequences where Felicia’s health worsens.
It’s rare to see complex relationships depicted on screen with no tedious moralising or handwringing. Cooper’s script (Co-written with Josh Singer) is unapologetic about Bernstein’s bisexuality. Felicia accepted and loved all of him for who he was and the film does too. Mulligan & Cooper are delightful together despite being saddled (particularly during the first half of the film) with dialogue that no human being has ever spoken. The dialogue sounds like a Chat GPT rendition of a 1950’s romance and details an otherwise very fine film.
Cooper is a fine actor and is delightful as Bernstein. Playful, brilliant, ever so slightly naughty his Bernstein is huge fun to be around. Much fuss has been made about the prosthetic nose and there is certainly a conversation to be had about why Hollywood routinely hires non Jews to play Jews (Sarah Silverman who has spoken often about this topic plays Bernstein’s sister in the movie) but I am not best placed to have that conversation. In the film it looks fine and while it is another example of Oscar grubbing (never did Nicole Kidman any harm) it is a move approved by Bernstein’s family who are 100% onboard.
Cooper captures the duality of the man and his struggle to live his life in a way which is true to himself. A sequence where Bernstein is forced to deny rumours of him cavorting with men to his daughter (played earnestly by Maya Hawke) is deeply affecting. Equally wonderful is a scene of Bernstein having a wonderful time dancing in a gay club in the 80’s. The sheer joy of it is wonderful to watch.
Cooper is equally talented as a director and directs Maestro with immense flair. A climatic screaming match between Bernstein and Felicia is set in the most extraordinarily beautiful New York apartment as the Macy’s thanksgiving parade marches by outside including a giant Snoopy. Cooper is as comfortable shooting the small domestic squabbles as he is the huge musical numbers.
Given the subject matter the musical set pieces are breathtaking including Bernstein conducting at Carnegie Hall (his breakthrough) and the recreation of Bernstein’s iconic recital of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Ely Cathedral. I confess to not knowing a great deal about Bernstein as a composer and honestly Maestrodidn’t really assist with that. It is vague on the music and assumes (perhaps correctly) that those watching will have a level of familiarity with the artist.
Maestro is a delightful, old fashioned biopic which confirms once again that Bradley Cooper is a singular talent to be reckoned with.
Maestro played at the London Film Festival and will be released on Netflix in select cinemas on 22 November and will land on Netflix on 20 December 2023.