Maestro Review: Bradley Cooper’s Film is Experimental and Flashy

The film, co-written and directed by Bradley Cooper, also stars Carey Mulligan. It is streaming on Netflix.
Maestro Review: Bradley Cooper’s Film is Experimental and Flashy
Maestro Review: Bradley Cooper’s Film is Experimental and Flashy

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer

Writers: Bradley Cooper, Josh Singer

Director: Bradley Cooper

Runtime:  2 hours 9 minutes

The editor Robert Gottlieb, when reviewing Leonard Bernstein’s letters for the New York Review of Books, wondered of him, “Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him?” For someone who doesn’t know, or know of Bernstein — composer for musicals like On the Town and West Side Story  — or for someone who hasn’t watched Maestro, based on his torturous life and prolific loves, this question might strike as slanted. 

But the more you see of him — as himself performing in live videos, as himself being represented performing in Maestro — this question becomes all the more potent. Bernstein was known for his vigorous, fully bodied conducting. Gottlieb writes, “It’s not just his notorious bouncing up and down. He grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms; the emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face — he’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways. He sweats.” Sweats, yes, a lot, as does Bradley Cooper who takes on the garb of this strange man, in a film that Cooper also co-wrote, with Josh Singer, and directed. He leaves his sweat as stains on dresses of those whom he hugs and kisses after his performance. There is something so egregiously public-facing about this performance, it is impossible to not wonder at what point does a facade sublimate into personality. 

Maestro is at once, an audio-visual sniff of vinegar and an experimental head-rush of a biopic. The film begins with Bernstein getting a call. Bruno Walter was supposed to conduct a concert for the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, but had fallen ill and Bernstein was called upon to replace him. Bernstein was 25. We cannot hear what the other side of the call is saying, stitching sense from the pittance of dialogues here and there. 

Maestro on Netflix
Maestro on Netflix

Bernstein’s Lovers

Just the image has a saintly power. In black and white — the early years of Bernstein’s career and marriage are in this textured monochrome; later, the film swerves into color as the marriage sours — we see him in the corner, switching on a lamp, purls of smoke from his cigarette, phone to his ear, his silhouette flaring up. The thick curtains are drawn but from the edges of it you can see strings of bright light — it is daytime. There is something unsettling about the shape of the window, it is trapezoidal. Until in celebration, Bernstein draws open the curtain, we don’t realize it is actually a sloping window which gives the impression of the trapezoid. 

A man is sleeping next to him, David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), and in one rambling take, the camera follows Bernstein playing drums on his lover’s bum, from his room to the concert hall. The camera swoops onto the stage and back to his face, among the audience, a dream-scape of euphoria. If A Star Is Born established Cooper’s directorial voice as something extraordinarily tender, his penchant for visual staging, Maestro takes it to its flashy peak. The texture of the scenes in black and white are so rough, full of harsh backlight, the sounds are so clear, like the cigarette being sucked, the tobacco singeing, and even the sound of a cigarette being sucked when the fire has left it — that lacking crackle, which is also, strangely, a sound.   

He meets Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, fragility embodied), an actress from Chile, at a party. They take a corner to themselves, flirt thoroughly, rapidly, walk into an empty theater, rehearse lines of her play, kiss — as characters? as lovers? — with the lamp flaring behind them. Next, they are on the floor, post-coital, perhaps, and in a long take we see the cigarette on Bernstein’s fingers ashing into air — time here is suddenly made to feel so potent, so strung by a clock. They get married. 

Maestro on Netflix
Maestro on Netflix

Bernstein as an off-Stage Performer

In Maestro, for the most part, time is a suggestion. We skate through decades, years, as though the interim never happened, but the way Cooper stages scenes, the way the dialogues are written and performed — that clipped, unrehearsed drawl, not finishing some sentences, repeating some, stuttering your way through another, often in long, uninterrupted takes — gives the sense that the film is not a collection of vignettes, that through these scenes, sometimes just hurting glares, sometimes a trailing conversation, the years off screen are brought into being, even if it is a hazy shape, and not a clear portal. 

Take the scene where Felicia catches Bernstein kissing another man in the hallway. She walks off and when Bernstein catches up with her, she chastises him, “You’re getting sloppy.” Through this dialogue alone we are supposed to grasp that over the years, these indiscretions have been taking place, but outside of Felicia’s gaze. The film keeps doing this, as though plunging you into conversations, without introducing who is talking to whom, about what exactly

Additions and elisions are par for course in the genre. A lot of the politics — of the claws of McCarthyism, the Black Panthers, which Bernstein helped fundraise for — and the becoming of Bernstein as an icon is left off-stage. The focus is the unsteady relationship between Bernstein and Felicia, but also of Bernstein as a performer. Long stretches of sequences see him conducting, and Cooper’s physicality inhabits Bernstein in a strange, almost psychological drift. The choice to shape Bernstein as a performer and lover — not a man of politics, neither a man of ambition — is a bold, reckless choice, because it holds its incompleteness on its shoulder as it struts around.  

Other choices are a bit more baffling. In one of the most stinging scenes, Felicia warns Bernstein that he will die “a lonely old queen.” According to Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton, however, Felicia predicted in fury, “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.” Not queen; man. It stings more, because it is not just his loneliness, but his queer loneliness that is being ripped at. The camera is at a distance, though, and we don’t really see Bernstein’s face, just his slumped, defeated posture. That seems enough.  

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