Feature movie review: MAESTRO | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Feature movie review: MAESTRO 

Bradley Cooper's Leonard Bernstein biopic avoids cliché and offers electrifying audacity

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Bradley Cooper's first feature as cowriter and director, 2018's A Star Is Born, was a marvel: passionate, intoxicating, enrapturing. His second, Maestro, made me feel exactly the same way. It's rare for a movie to move me, to rivet and electrify me like Maestro did.

There's a breathtaking boldness—arrogance, even—at work in here, even more so than with A Star Is Born, which was already bursting with Cooper's immense confidence as a filmmaker. Certainly, there are other filmmakers working today who can legitimately be slapped with the label "egotistical," even "narcissistic"—there's a reason why the term "fauxteur" had to be invented—but Cooper gets away with it. Runs away with it. And doesn't make you—okay, me—hate him for it.

Maestro is nominally a biopic docudrama, but doesn't feel like any biopic docudrama I've seen before. I didn't know much about classical-music composer and orchestral conductor Leonard Bernstein before this, and I didn't learn much about him in this movie, and that's okay! "It's not a documentary!" is the usual reminder when some folks complain about omissions or elisions in movie depictions of real people.

Cooper and co-screenwriter Josh Singer have leaned into that, so much so that they're not even pretending to be documentary-ish. The way they tell Bernstein's story here is immersive—like, we are there for Bernstein's professional and personal life in postwar America—but also impressionistic, like nothing is explained for us and we just let it flow over us.

There's one brief mention, for instance, of a friend called Jerry—and only later is it clear, oh, that was Jerome Robbins, director/producer/choreographer of West Side Story, for which Bernstein wrote the music. Maybe there's a brief passing mention of Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for that production? I can't really recall. But anyone hoping for a box-ticking who's-who of Bernstein's collaborators will be disappointed.

Instead, Cooper throws us straight into the deep end. Maestro is, sometimes literally but often figuratively, all rapid-fire party chat at a salon where the smart cultural set is hanging out in the NYC metro area, circa any time from the 1940s to the 1960s. Often the precise conversation eludes us, but we grasp what is going on: vital, energetic life, mostly of an intellectual sort, sometimes somewhat more earthy; there's a bit of flirtation, a bit of sex, but even they are rooted in brainy creativity.

There's lots of Bernstein's music on the soundtrack, but not much diegetic, actually heard in the context of the story being told. This is a tale less of one man's creative output and more of what drove him artistically. A lot of that was love of the people around him, including his wife, socialite and actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). A lot of it was the love he had to sneak around for: Bernstein was gay, or at least bisexual, and wasn't very good at pretending he wasn't, no more than he had to publicly in those homophobic days.

I haven't even mentioned that it's Cooper portraying Bernstein, and he is sublime. A kerfuffle ensued when the first publicity photos of Cooper as Bernstein were released, showing him wearing a prosthetic nose that some characterized as "Jewface"; Bernstein was Jewish, and Cooper is not (though his own nose is pretty impressive!). This didn't seem unfair at the time—the fake nose initially did come across as almost unnecessary—but in the context of the film itself, the nose works, or at least does not feel out of place. Nose notwithstanding, Cooper utterly disappears into the role to the point where he's often unrecognizable, not just physically but deep-down soulfully. He seems to have taken onboard Bernstein's unflappable confidence, and it is a delight to watch.

I'm not fluent in music-talk, but I feel like Bernstein's compositions are eclectic, staccato and genre-defying, full of unexpected tonal shifts that nevertheless work. Maestro echoes its subject's music. There's a visual and narrative freshness to this movie, a wonderful eccentricity, a delicious audacity. They're all a kick in the pants to a mainstream cinema that has, in many ways, been feeling more and more moribund. I think this is a perfect movie, but I would also hope that those who don't agree would at least recognize that it pushes boundaries in a way that we very much need right now.

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