One of the final scenes in Maestro shows an older Leonard Bernstein listening and helping a younger student try to crack a particularly difficult piece of music. Especially to figure out how to transition from one piece to the next, and then Bernstein, after listening to the young conductor’s efforts, gets up on the stage and effortlessly manages to evoke the piece his young protege had been failing in his past attempts. The ease of the performance and the dexterity draw applause from the students, and the man, gregarious, takes in the applause and asks for more to come as he instructs his cellists and violinists to play at higher pitches.

This scene in the movie answers the question, “What makes Leonard Bernstein special?”. Ostensibly, the biopic should ask the question about the subject it is trying to portray: “Who is he? What is about him that makes his legion of fans and students worship him? What about him as an artist is captivating enough for a biopic to be crafted that should be tailor-made for a large audience and not just for fans of classical music and musical theater?”

I believe the movie fails to answer these questions because the movie isn’t about that question in the first place. But if that is the case, and if “Maestro” is Bradley Cooper’s vanity project about a tortured and complicated soul and the relationship with his wife, why is Bernstein, as portrayed by Cooper, so center-stage? Consequently, the question arises as to why Bradley Cooper chooses to essay the role of such a performer with the sole intention of getting all his physical attributes, his mannerisms, and his cadence of speech right, but keeping us at arm’s length about his innermost turmoil until towards the tail end of the movie.

Criticism should be imparted to Bradley Cooper, the actor, but Cooper, the director, is in form. Still, as an artist working to find his defining voice, it is fascinating to see the myriad of directorial flourishes he chooses to catapult on the screen. The academy ratio he chooses to deploy almost throughout the runtime of the film is in place to perhaps specifically remind the viewer that it is from the perspective of a storyteller rather than a factual account of events. The monochromatic color palette, though, is a very bizarre choice.

It gives us Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous cinematography, his use of the chiaroscuro, and how he allows the light to play through as smoky visuals on the stage, as if deliberately hammering home the performative nature of the relationship and marriage between Leonard and Felicia. Cooper’s homage to the 40s and 50s is not subtle. From the introduction of Felicia as she walks down the bus towards the screen and Bernstein’s score enveloping her, to the opening scene of Bernstein waking up to the opening score of On the Waterfront as he rushes through his apartment and enters his imaginative sanctum eerily resembling Carnegie Hall, to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the dialogue amongst the actors, Cooper tries to homage and bring in the performance of that era. But the gregariousness of the director couldn’t match the dexterity of the actor, and even as transitions become more gorgeous as time passes until the monochrome suddenly shifts to color, it becomes increasingly apparent that Cooper’s performance as Bernstein screams of very visible effort. The performativeness almost alienates the viewer, and the prosthetics and the cadence too don’t help matters. Instead of immersion, it becomes abstention, almost disconnecting.

It is in sharp contrast to Carey Mulligan, who is effortless. Sample the scene where, after first kissing Lenny, she is asked whether she made an exception for him by staying out late. Look at her pause and exhale slightly before stating that he is a man worth making exceptions for. The scene of the two of them having an argument (with barely raised voices) near the patio of their summer house, the camera looking at them from a distance—her beach chair on one side of the fenced gate, and Lenny sitting on the opposite end. It’s a beautiful framing of a shot, simple and elegant, but is helped by a performance from an actress who is adept at fine-tuning the performance as the scene needs her to tune it. That is also the reason why Cooper, who is an actor’s director, works wonders when he pushes the camera towards Mulligan as she speechifies her thoughts, with the bare hint of the accent reminding you of the performativeness.

But because Cooper is an actor’s director, he is also in extreme service to himself as well as Bernstein’s musical pieces. That is why Bernstein’s performance, in which Cooper learned to conduct a six-minute orchestra for over six years, is captured by a languorous and luxuriating performance. It is a bravura of a performance, a victory lap that should be praised, and the inevitable Academy nomination clip that should be shown as part of this performance. But in hindsight, the scene works when the show ends and Bernstein rushes over to Felicia and kisses her, and she comforts him.

Mulligan as Felicia is the true emotional glue holding the movie together, and the end of the second act with the beginning of the final stretch is all the better for it. Because if “Maestro” isn’t about Maestro Bernstein’s accomplishments and neither about Bernstein’s gregariousness in any detail beyond the barest of touches, at least the strenuous nature of their marriage and the hold it had throughout Lenny’s life should be given the weight it deserves, and credit to Cooper and Mulligan that they both have chemistry together, even in the final segments. Cooper in moments where he allows the character to breathe and be silent is good, and the final scene with him and Mulligan is Hollywood schmaltz at full gear working well. I appreciated Cooper’s efforts at exploring the humanity of Bernstein, with the responsibility to depict the greatness of the man left to Bernstein’s scores which Cooper uses at interesting points. But I would have loved to explore more of the interiority of Cooper’s performance, if director Cooper would had trusted actor Cooper enough.

You can stream Maestro on Netflix.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *