My wife and I were in the car the other day when I put on the Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and remarked at what a genius you have to be in order to create brilliant orchestral works. Complex yet melodic. Fleeting yet timeless. Serious yet fun.
Bradley Cooper’s new movie, “Maestro,” celebrates those qualities and more from Bernstein’s professional and personal life, anchored by his marriage to Felicia Montealegre Cohn. She was well aware of his dalliances with other men, but willing to put up with them as long as they were discreet. Over the decades, however, her willingness to look away shrank as he became more public with his affairs.
Meanwhile, his career successes kept growing, from conducting world-renowned orchestras to composing the scores for “On The Town” and “West Side Story” to hosting a series of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Sadly, “Maestro” doesn’t spend as much time on his development of those achievements, although there is a sequence in which he conducts the London Symphony Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Ely Cathedral in England (which Cooper reportedly prepared for over the course of two years).
In that scene and many others, Cooper replicates Bernstein’s passion for the music and the musicians. Having watched a YouTube clip of the real Bernstein at that performance, I was amazed at how well Cooper captures that passion — and the look. It’s not just the hair and makeup (including the prosthetic nose, which I wrote about here). Cooper has Bernstein’s voice and mannerisms down, although he opted not to wear contact lenses to make his piercing blue eyes appear brown, as Bernstein’s were.
As good as Cooper’s depiction is, Carey Mulligan’s is even more stunning as Felicia. The range of emotions she can exude with just her face over the course of a single minute is simply remarkable. She’s no stranger to quality performances, having starred in titles that made my Best Movies Of The Year lists in both 2021 and 2022 (“She Said,” “Promising Young Woman“). As Felicia, she handles the highs and lows of the marriage with style and substance while displaying a completely believable chemistry with Cooper.
The supporting cast includes Michael Urie as Jerome Robbins, Matt Bomer as one of Bernstein’s lovers, and the winning combination of Mallory Portnoy and Nick Blaemire, hysterical in a joyful early scene as Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Oh, there’s a cameo by Snoopy, too. There should also be a credit for the enormous number of cigarettes consumed throughout the movie. I don’t think five minutes go by without Bernstein having one in his mouth, and he’s not alone in lighting them up.
As a director, Cooper (who also co-wrote with “Spotlight” screenwriter Josh Singer) proves that “A Star Is Born” was not a one-off. In “Maestro,” he sets the early years in black and white and the later years in color. He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique get the look right in both formats, and don’t feel the need to cut back and forth between closeups in the more dialogue-heavy scenes, thus allowing us to see the cast both acting and reacting.
In the credits sequence at the end, there’s a clip of the real Leonard Bernstein conducting an orchestra. The fact that it’s hard to tell him apart from Cooper’s portrayal is the key to the triumph that is “Maestro.”
I give it a 9 out of 10. Now streaming on Netflix.