If you believe Bradley Cooper, he asked for a conductor’s baton for Christmas when he was eight years old. There is an air of divine providence behind the production of Maestro, the feeling that even when Cooper was on the set of The A-Team he was dreaming of bringing the story of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre to the big screen. That distinction is important – this is the story of Maestro’s marriage, not just his work. Hardly his work! The result is a fascinating film about a mid-century marriage of… not quite convenience, but certainly not a flat heterosexual courting. The Bernstein marriage is real life, love and anger, flaws and all. The film’s rhythm is orchestral, of course, but ultimately it mirrors Cooper’s A Star is Born with its soaring heights and choppy lows.
There’s a reason Carey Mulligan is first billed. As Felicia, she is not just a window into Maestro’s world, she enhances it. Much of the film yadda yaddas through Bernstein’s career, which might come as a surprise. But did you want to watch an entire film where people say things like “So Lenny, what’s this show you’re working on? East Town Story? Somethin’ like that?” Cooper indulges that the tiniest amount, just enough so the film doesn’t feel ahistorical. It’s clear Cooper wants to dig into the private side of this outsized cultural force, as the standout Thanksgiving argument shows. I can hardly believe the Bernstein children signed off on this script, the way it portrays the more selfish and cruel sides of their parents. I applaud them for it, especially Jamie, portrayed in this film by Maya Hawke at her bubbliest and coldest.
Maestro throws the viewer for a loop from scene one, leaning back and forth through time, covering Cooper’s face in shockingly realistic prosthetics (how did they get the neck wobble to work like that?) in one scene and letting him play bongos on Matt Bomer’s bum in another. Lenny and Felciia meet, suddenly they have children and appear on a talk show together. When the film slows down, you really feel it. There is no hand-holding here – Cooper assumes you know everything about Bernstein the way he does. He’s doing a whole voice too. You’ll see. The nose is fine. No one was actually mad about that. Right?
I’m mentioning Cooper more than I normally mention a director, but he’s made it impossible to untangle himself from Maestro. Every film is about the person that made it, but this one especially feels that way. Perhaps there’s something about Felicia telling Lenny that he will die a “miserable old queen” that he relates to? We could speculate such. But for now, it’s best to just bear witness to Maestro and think about the other untold stories of the time, marriages that were based on love but were never quite settled. Marriages where a woman marries a gay guy and then gets mad at him for being gay. That love is beautiful, and so is Maestro.
Dir. Bradley Cooper
Premiering 12/1 at Landmark Kendall Square
Opens Friday 12/8 @ Coolidge
Streaming on Netflix 12/20