Cinema to stir the soul: Maestro is a reverential, and flawed, portrait of genius

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Netflix

Mulling over Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s sophomore directorial effort for Netflix, the Yiddish word chutzpah sprang to mind.

As one of the most prolific composers and conductors in the history of classical music, Leonard Bernstein oozed chutzpah. But Cooper is clearly aiming to give the titular maestro a run for his money; not only has he co-authored the script with Josh Singer, but he’s also donned a prosthetic nose and cast himself as Bernstein. It’s an audacious gamble, and one which – just about – pays off.

Maestro is splendid filmmaking, emotionally rousing and psychologically involving. But Cooper is so blatantly awed by Bernstein that it ultimately grows just a tad tiresome. You respect his performance but are always conscious that you are, ultimately, watching somebody play pretend. In the context of the film Cooper has crafted, however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Cooper and Singer’s script employs a horseshoe structure; we first see an aged Bernstein speaking about his deceased wife, before leaping back to 1943 when a young Bernstein is told that, with only a few hours’ notice and zero rehearsal time, he will be conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Cooper renders the scene with breathless, zingy excitement; in one take we miraculously travel from Bernstein’s bed, through the bowels of Carnegie Hall, up to its Parquet before soaring over the auditorium and to the waiting conductor’s stand.

Another wonderful sequence comes shortly afterwards where we see Bernstein at lunch with friends, including the woman he will marry, Felicia Montealegre Cohen (Carey Mulligan). Bernstein is advised to shorten his name to Burns, thereby omitting his Jewishness from his own name, and to give up his writing for musical theatre.

But Felicia wants to hear “that musical theatre stuff” and the two whisk themselves away to a Broadway stage where they find themselves entangled with a performance of Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free. My mother, who came to the screening with me, spoke quietly to the screen: “I used to love this one when I was little.”

As Bernstein and Felicia find themselves drawn into the dance, the sequence – which captures the highs and lows of their courtship – grows increasingly foreboding. Maestro suggests that love and fidelity are a sort of dance. Two people pushing and pulling away from and towards each other; in the film, Bernstein with his ego and Felicia with her poise often resemble two bombs being transported alongside each other with great care.

It quickly becomes evident that Cooper is far more interested in Felicia’s psychological interior than he is interested in depicting the chronology of Bernstein’s career. Thankfully, Mulligan is luminous. She has always been a radiantly empathetic actress, and her eyes are two deep wells of unspoken feeling. It’s a devastating performance.

Bernstein talks: he talks and talks and talks. Felicia, on the other hand, is quieter and more contemplative. This difference gradually comes to suggest that not speaking is a kind of sound in itself. When should you not speak? Is it better to lie or to remain silent? A shame, then, that with regards to Bernstein’s sexuality the film does neither.

As an example: before he answers that fateful phone call in 1943, we hear Bernstein in bed with the clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), who is so thinly sketched as to barely register as a character. In 1971 Bernstein took 24-year-old music director Tom Cothran (Gideon Glick) as his lover. Worse than Bomer, Glick’s character is reduced to a twinkish femme for Mulligan to scowl at. It does both Glick and Mulligan a disservice.

The strangest – and most evidently deliberate – decision the film makes is to downplay Bernstein’s Jewishness and wholly omit his relationship with the state of Israel and the Israel Philharmonic. Though Bernstein’s concert in Beersheba in 1948 is worthy of a motion picture by itself, Maestro occasionally resembles a carefully assembled highlights reel, and it’s no coincidence that it’s when it simply allows its actors to inhabit the historical circumstance that the film takes flight.

Take Maestro’s rendering of Bernstein’s legendary conducting of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Ely Cathedral in 1973. It is, let me be very clear, one of the most extraordinary moments of cinema I have ever born witness to. If, like me, you believe that cinema exists to remind us why we have souls, then Christmas has come early; Cooper nails Bernstein’s frenzied conducting, Steve Morrow’s sound mixing has you hearing the beating of angel’s wings.

And it plays in full, six and a bit minutes, uninterrupted. No tricks of the camera. Just Cooper trying to inhabit the flesh and blood of a man he so clearly adores. He never will, however, which makes the act of him trying all the more beautiful.

You gotta hand it to him, that’s chutzpah.

Maestro – official trailer

Maestro is showing in selected cinemas across the UK – and available to stream via Netflix. For more info and links to streaming services: