MAESTRO (2023) – Review
The list of actors who have jumped behind the camera to sit in the director’s chair is very long. One way to shorten it considerably would be to specify which of their debut-directed flicks were both a critical and commercial hit. Yes, Orson Welles’ CITIZEN CAINE is lauded by film scholars but barely produced a ripple in that competitive “golden year” of 1941. Yes, it’s rare, but one actor really hit a “home run” in his first time “up to the plate” with a film that’s the third screen take on a beloved early sound classic, that packed the multiplex, made some top ten lists, and snagged some Oscar gold. Ah, but the actor was nominated for his performance (yes, he directed himself in that debut), but nothing for his strong cinematic storytelling. Now five years later, he’s back directing himself, for his follow-up. And though this is a biopic rather than a romantic drama, it is also set in the world of music. So, is this a case of “sophomore slump”? Well, after watching this effort, he could perhaps share the title of MAESTRO.
And just who is referred to in the film’s title? None other than Leonard (“Call me Lenny!”) Bernstein (Bradley Cooper), who, for many “baby boomers” was the “face” of classical music in America for several decades. In the opening scene, he’s well into his twilight years as he sits down at the piano for a filmed interview in 1978. Then the movie backtracks thirty-five years into dazzling black and white. Lenny leaps from the bed he shares with his lover David (Matt Bomer) in an apartment above the concert stage to take the most important phone call of his young life. Bruno Walter, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic is ill and Lenny will have to take the “baton”. And it’s that old cliche as “a star is born”. Lenny’s the darling of high society and the NYC art world. At one of the swanky parties he meets, and is immediately dazzled by a young stage actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). This begins a whirlwind romance over the next few years as Lenny establishes himself as a composer with the hit “On the Town”, leading to their marriage in 1951. The couple becomes the “toast of the town” and begins a family, despite Lenny’s wandering eye for both sexes. Felicia is aware and endures it with the proviso that he is “discreet” and won’t publicly embarrass her. Their unconventional marriage is severely tested and nearly unravels when eldest daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) confronts her father, who flatly denies those “rumors”. Luckily his career continues its upward trajectory with acclaimed concerts and Broadway hits like “Candide” and the iconic “West Side Story”. But soon the issues of “cheating” are dwarfed by the health crisis that may finish off the Bernstein family.
Though originally seen as another handsome leading man, Cooper proves to be a gifted character actor as the artistic titan of the twentieth century. Bernstein is a complex role requiring Cooper to exude some of his screen charisma to draw in the masses during his concerts. The sequences of him conducting full orchestras, choirs, and combinations of both are truly dazzling with Cooper seemingly super-charged with the energy of the music muses. Much the same can be said of his creative epiphanies as his artistic zeal consumes everyone around him, especially his collaborators. But with those passions came the appetites for pleasure, giving us the impression that his ego was beyond earthly moral standards, with no interest in the impact of his indulgencies. Part of this leads to the great romance of his life and its near disintegration. Cooper has found the ideal screen partner for the love of Lenny’s life. Mulligan projects wisdom and strength giving Felicia a regal aura that masks her pain over her hubby’s often flagrant callousness. And as the demon of disease envelops her, Mulligan shows us her agony but also her determination to not “go gently into that goodnight”. In the supporting roles, Hawke projects the fizzy spirit of youth while dealing with some major parental confusion. And gifted comic actress Sarah Silverman flits in and out as Lenny’s glamorous, “smart set” sister Shirley, dopping “dishy” remarks.
Amazingly Cooper brings as much energy and creativity to his work behind the camera. He’s chosen to recreate the decades with a stunning switch in color, or lack of, as the 40s and 50s are splashed on the screen in shimmering strokes of black and white (big praise for cinematographer Matthew Libatique), then abruptly explodes with saturated colors for the swinging 60’s and 70’s (ah, the deep tans over Bernstein’s aging face). The vintage sets, props, and fashion keep right up the times. And they need to keep up with Cooper’s storytelling skills as a maze on stage suddenly switches to a full-on stage spectacle. Oh, and what sequences, the highlight being a breathtaking, jaw-dropping recreation of the presentation of Mahler at the Ely Cathedral which feels like one glorious supreme take. Luckily Cooper brings the same spirit to the more intimate scenes, particularly a nasty, verbal showdown over a beloved holiday. A similar technique is used to show the couple’s initial attraction as Lenny describes his new work about sailors on leave and is suddenly twirling and leaping with the “gobs”. Wisely, the movie’s superb score is all music created by Bernstein for various projects (there’s a great snippet from “West Side Story” while eschewing any theatrical recreations). Hopefully, this will inspire younger viewers to seek out his recordings, while for those of us who grew up with those “Young People’s Concerts” this will remind us of his fabulous legacy. And thanks to the talented Cooper, this MAESTRO is truly masterful.
4 Out of 4
MAESTRO is now playing in select theatres