Bradley Cooper is undoubtedly feeling the Bern. There’s something very endearing about Cooper’s star persona, not least the fact that, of all modern Hollywood leading men, the mere idea of a “star persona” is something he actually earns. He is charismatic, good-looking, talented (also showcasing talent some felt he didn’t have), and has pretty good taste. Though Paul Thomas Anderson hit on something deploying him for an edgier role as one-man hurricane movie producer and cad Jon Peters. 

Maestro is not quite “the devil’s candy,” as author Julie Salamon famously described doomed prestige projects in her account of the making of Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, but it’s undoubtedly a clasp for the brass ring. It’s about one of the greatest homegrown American musical figures, Leonard Bernstein, who made canonical contributions to the classical, musical theatre, and arguably pop worlds; Steven Spielberg himself, also among the great American creative forces, originally developed the film, strongly flirted with directing, and maybe-wisely handed it off to triple-threat Cooper.

One of Maestro‘s greatest disappointments is its lack of insight into Bernstein’s musical output. It’s certainly conversant with and respectful to it, but it’s a potential thread I anticipated when sitting down: almost the Mike Leigh, Topsy-Turvy approach of the fine-tuning, of the realistic and perhaps anti-dramatic artistic squabbles that really immerse you in the process. The three pop needle drops used in the final half-hour make a bigger impression, providing that sugar-rush lift––certainly not for nothing Cooper made a solid Star is Born and gave us “Shallow” with it. 

He certainly finds a savvy, timely angle to approach Bernstein’s story, with the attendant, large flaw that it actually writes its ostensible subject somewhat out of his own film. Rather than a film about music or Jewish-American assimilation (my, was Oppenheimer surprisingly good on this topic) Maestro is about the closet, and not always in a despairing or punitive sense. 

Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s lifelong spouse Felicia Montealegre (who, with her other family name Cohn, was Jewish on her father’s side) is a definite co-lead. She is Bernstein’s lover, confidante, and source of camouflage, as he is gay––a well-kept secret amongst his large social circle. Felicia is accepting of it and her role as a cover for him concurrently keeping relationships with men, and the script from Cooper and Josh Singer leaves it provocatively hanging if she was naive about its possible effect on her own freedom and sexuality, or if she indeed knew exactly what, in those innocent Eisenhower ’50s, she was getting into. 

It looks ahead to the present day also, in the respect that polyamory or ethical non-monogamy as a relationship choice is far less taboo, with it reaching into the bonds of heterosexual couples evermore. After an hour of near Walk Hard-isms––hey, there’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green! there’s “Stevie” Sondheim!––we move into color from its previous choice of black-and-white, and Felicia is granted more personhood. She has affairs of her own, yet also correctly laments the foreclosing of her own potential to provide cover for this great man’s real sexual identity. The public rumors swirling around various “summer trips,” and her daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke, appropriately cast given her famous lineage) confronting her father on them when she hears word, all bring the first real dramatic tension.

Maestro could really be more explicit, more painful, less hagiographic, yet a film officially authorized by Bernstein’s estate, one clearly wanting to soothe rather than challenge parts of its audience (who won’t exclusively be of a liberal nature) could only go far. As a director Cooper gives it all he’s got; his eye and visual sense are possibly still developing, but he knows how to corral lively, motivated performances out of leads and supporting ensemble. A Birdman-esque one-take swoop through a concert hall near the beginning––as we go from his love nest with colleague David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) down to him taking the baton for the first time with the New York Philharmonic––is among the better of numerous homages to that film, and I’ve watched U.K. broadcast-TV advertising over the past few years. 

And then there’s the timely subject of casting authenticity. Sidestepping the ridiculous “Jewface” nose makeup accusations, a much funnier element early in the film is when Leonard and Felicia have their initial meet-cute at an arty soirée: watching Cooper and Mulligan, though they do their best, swapping stories about being descendants of Russian Orthodox Jews and rejecting the call of the klezmer world becomes inadvertently hilarious. A star’s ability to seem like themselves rather than who they’re playing can overpower the demands of their role, even as direction from the filmmaker can’t be discounted.

There’s a director with a beautiful film out this year who’d have made a wonderful Maestro (and given it a better title). His name’s Todd Haynes, he has form with true-life stories and the music world, and is queer and part-Jewish. There is nothing like authenticity.

Maestro premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will enter a limited release on November 22 before coming to Netflix on December 20.

Grade: B-

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