Upon watching Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, what struck me was how the narrative felt like two films. In the first half, we see the young Leonard Bernstein in black and white overtaking the scenes with energy and extroversion, as he admits to loving people so much that he finds it difficult to be alone (something that would plague him when it came to composing since composition requires alone time). He even goes to the bathroom with the door open. This tidbit aside, the film is not so much about Leonard as it is about his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Cary Mulligan), whom he meets at a party one night.
The film opens with an aging, chain-smoking Leonard sitting at a piano and speaking to a documentary maker about how much he misses Felicia, who died of breast cancer in 1978. The scene is shot in color and already sets the narrative up for that of a predictable soap opera, rather than a deeper exploration of an artist. And Bradley Cooper, while rendering his performance well, speaks like he is continually congested. Add a lot of makeup and prosthetics and one knows that an Oscar is not far behind.
Then, flash to a 25-year-old Leonard in black and white, receiving the phone call informing him that composer Bruno Walter has fallen ill, and so Leonard must substitute for him at the New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall. Immediately, this opportunity thrusts the young conductor into the spotlight. Charming, flamboyant, outgoing, and talented, it is no wonder why the more private Felicia is so taken with him (notwithstanding the many men who are as well). He courts her and they spend afternoons chatting in Central Park. Then, once Leonard and Felicia are married, they exchange good dialogue regarding luck, where Leonard admits that had he not gotten that call, he’d still be teaching music to eight-year-olds. Felicia, however, disagrees, informing him that if it hadn’t happened then, it would have happened some other time. Perhaps she is right, but lack of luck is one of the unfortunate factors that most artists who never get their due in their lifetimes undergo.
Many reviewers have criticized what they refer to as ‘artsy’ scenes throughout, and I think what they mean is that Maestro relies on artifice, i.e., we know that we are watching a film. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, because much like a musical, characters will cease what they are doing only to begin singing and dancing, as they move from bedrooms to music halls in a matter of seconds. This approach is appropriate, given Leonard’s involvement with musicals, and had the film continued in this manner, and if we’d have seen his creative process behind West Side Story, perhaps the film would have been much stronger. Instead, we are given flashbacks where the present day is set in color and everything interesting happens in the black and white past. Sigh. Why not just make the film about that?
In contrast, while Leonard is overwhelmed with frustration, anger, and resentment, Maestro does not plumb into the creative frustration the way tick…tick…BOOM! does with Jonathan Larson, who is attempting to finish the rock musical that he’s been working on for eight years. To quote my review:
tick…tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a Netflix Original musical, which renders the story of Jonathan Larson’s adult life, as well as his creative struggle. Set in 1990, just days before his 30th birthday, Larson is attempting to complete the final song within Supurbia, his first musical. He has been working on this musical for eight years, apparently. He lives in near poverty, wherein he can’t even manage his electric bill. At times, he feels like a failure for not having achieved the success he so covets, like that of his peers. Constantly comparing himself to earlier, younger musicians, the film recreates Larson’s One Man Show, wherein he details these frustrations—his creativity, his friendships, and his ‘career’ as a waiter while using them as creative fodder. ‘Hi, I’m Jon. I’m a musical-theatre writer. One of the last of my species.’
Need I say that I related much more to Larson’s struggling character than I did Bernstein’s, who seems to live the rich fairy tale life of wealth, fame, and accolades, yet still is unhappy. Granted, he is essentially a closeted gay man cohabiting with a wife who tolerates his extramarital affairs, as long as he remains discreet. However, as the film continues, we see that Felicia is deeply troubled by his homosexual relationships, as well as his draining self-absorption. It all has to be about him. And while Felicia is certainly interesting enough and deserving of her own story, Maestro instead makes her into the martyr, suffering endlessly as she holds it in until her death from cancer. All I can think is that reducing this to a tear-jerker was done for so-called ‘broad appeal,’ since studios seem to think audiences are less interested in the creative process than they are in tragic melodrama. In short, if this film was not about a famous person, could the narrative stand on its own? My answer is no, as this is not Whiplash.
The acting in Maestro, however, is excellent, with Carey Mulligan as the star performer. She delivers just the right amount of emotion and hesitation within each scene, but I can’t help but feel that her character is merely an appendage—shoehorned in for filmic convention. Furthermore, Bradley Cooper, while good, at times comes off like a caricature, wherein his acting feels affected and like someone delivering an imitation. In real life, Bernstein ends up leaving Felicia for another man, but as the film portrays, he suddenly becomes the dutiful, loyal husband once she falls ill.
After watching, I sought out several online documentaries about Bernstein, and the underlying theme seems to be his regret of not composing more of his own work and the tension between wanting to be a ‘serious artist/composer’ with that of a commercial conductor. (After all, commercial pays the bills.) There were also egos involved in his lifetime, and artistic tensions between him and others in the industry that this film does not explore. Instead, we are witness to Felicia’s frustrations manifested via her jumping into a pool fully clothed when Leonard announces that he’s finished one of his compositions, her leaving his bedroom slippers outside the door after his one too many homosexual affairs, and undergoing what Leonard refers to as her ‘sadness.’ Alas, why do you think she is sad, Leonard? Similar to when he introduced Felicia to his male lover, David, for the first time, we can see the hurt on David’s face at this polite introduction, but Leonard is clueless as to how anyone else feels but himself.
Maestro is one of those films with excellent moments saturated with too many conventional ones. As example, I fail to see how Bernstein’s life was tragic, given his accolades and self-absorption. Not to mention that he could have lived longer had he not spent his life chain-smoking. ‘Luck had nothing to do with it,’ Felicia says. But ask yourself, how many artists are as lucky as he? A film this reminds me of is Anthony Mann’s 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story, which stars James Stewart as Miller. It is a delightful rendering that also involves Miller’s relationship with his wife, and if you know anything about him, he died after his plane went missing in WW2. That, I would say, is far more tragic. As is, Maestro’s success resides primarily within the black and white scenes, which returns me to my initial point—I felt like I’d watched two films, and one of them at least is quite good.
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More from Jessica Schneider: Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955), Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), Labyrinth of Hell: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” (1957)