By Lawrence Toppman
Watching the impressionistic, free-form “Maestro,” I felt as if I were attending one of the chaotic parties Leonard Bernstein loved to host.
Celebrities pass by, identified by one name or none. Snatches of conversation hint at secrets and revelations. We drop in and out of people’s lives, without always knowing why they matter.
Your hostess, Costa Rican-born actress Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, remains more in the background, slowly revealing facets of her character. Her husband, composer Leonard Bernstein – hereinafter and always referred to as “Lenny” – sucks all the air out of every room with his exuberance, prattle and almost unconscious egotism.
The film doesn’t pretend to be a biography: For that, go to the “American Masters” profile “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note.” In “Maestro,” we hear pieces of his mostly unidentified successes in passing, and his musical bombs – “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” “A Quiet Place,” the sprawling “Mass” – barely or never get mentioned.
Instead, scenes bounce back and forth in time and place, ultimately forming an in-depth portrait of a relationship between a bisexual but mostly gay man and a woman who thought she could accept him with all his flaws, including carnal infidelities. Theirs was a one-of-a-kind love affair, and “Maestro” shows you what kind.
If you know Bradley Cooper directed, starred, co-wrote the script with Josh Singer and co-produced, you might wonder whether to call this a vanity project or a labor of love. It’s the latter: Cooper was in high school when Lenny died in 1990, and decades of fandom have translated into an extraordinary performance.
Buried under remarkably apt makeup – forget snarky comments about the nose, which looks right – he speaks in Bernstein’s voices, from the throbbing intensity of the young man to the gravelly, cigarette-tinged purr of the elder. (I haven’t seen this many coffin nails smoked in a movie in years. No surprise that cancer killed both husband and wife.) Cooper bounces and swaggers and slumps and sulks like the Bernstein we’ve seen in photographs, especially on the podium.
Carey Mulligan gives an equally remarkable performance as Felicia. She peels back the actress-socialite’s composed veneer, showing all her joys and disappointments with heart-rending subtlety. Felicia, who had broken off an early engagement to Lenny (the movie doesn’t mention this), realized he’d be her destiny and married him in 1951, when he was still a promising Broadway composer and hadn’t made much impact on classical music.
As he did, and the world claimed him, she began to realize she and her three children would never have more than a piece of this musical polymath. She tried to make that piece be enough, despite his extramarital relationships, and even a year-long separation couldn’t kill their love. (Would gay men really have kissed openly on busy New York streets 75 years ago? I doubt it.)
Cooper directed in a way that’s meant to capture the patchwork nature of Lenny’s frenzied life. Scenes end suddenly or begin out of nowhere. Some of the film has been shot in black and white, some in color. It’s projected in a 4:3 ratio that reflects the way movies were shown in Bernstein’s early years, before widescreen pictures.
We sometimes see characters from afar, at the end of an arbor or ambling on a lawn. Lenny delivers a long monologue with his back to the camera, while we study the uninteresting faces of students listening to him. These affectations don’t detract much from the impact of the story, and moments such as Lenny’s conducting of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in Ely Cathedral snap us back to attention.
By then, Lenny has become the elder statesman who revived Mahler in America and, after 11 fiery years of leading the New York Philharmonic, taught his music to European orchestras who ignored or hated it. As we watch him summon every ounce of energy and emotion to put across Mahler’s most uplifting finale, we experience the kind of musical ecstasy Bernstein felt all his life. We understand why Felicia couldn’t let go of this live wire, even though he was burning her up.
“Maestro” will play at the Independent Picture House, its only Charlotte run, starting Dec. 15. It starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 20.
Pictured: Maestro. (L to R) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.