Review | Maestro | 2023

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer), and Brian Klugman as Aaron Copland in Maestro. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Bradley Cooper's Maestro is a strange bird almost from the get-go. It's a biopic that seems determined to avoid the typical "connect the dots" nature of its genre, yet manages to find other pitfalls in the process of avoiding more the more obvious ones.

A biopic of composer Leonard Bernstein has been bandied around Hollywood for a while - attracting interest from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Jack Gyllenhaal. Ultimately, Spielberg decided to produce, leaving the reigns to Cooper, who also stars. His previous film, A Star is Born, was met with near universal acclaim and went on to receive eight Oscar nominations, winning one for Lady Gaga's original song, "Shallow." Cooper himself was overlooked for Best Director, despite nods for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture, and everything about Maestro seems designed to finally clinch a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards.

It's certainly a more ambitious film than A Star is Born, but it lacks that film's passion and raw emotion. Maestro is immaculately constructed and designed to the point that it feels a bit cold. Rather than focusing on Bernstein's career, Cooper focuses almost solely on his relationship with his wife, Felicia Montrealegre (Carey Mulligan), his career unfolding around them almost as a sidebar to their personal struggles. Bernstein was, of course, a closeted gay man; unable to live openly during his life, yet his dalliances with men were something of an open secret. Cooper's focus lands squarely on that tension between a man who clearly has great affection for his wife, but whose sexual attraction lies elsewhere.

There is an inherent tragedy to life in the closet during this era, and how the pressure to keep homosexuality hidden hurt not only the gay people who had to suppress their true selves, but the people they married to maintain appearances. But that's a story we've seen many times before, and Maestro's portrayal of Felicia as the long suffering wife feels less than generous. I think it's here that it is most evident that this is the story of a queer man being told by a straight filmmaker - the focus just feels misguided in a way that I can't help but believe a queer filmmaker would have avoided. The film is also done no favors by its time jumping structure, which which is where it falls most victim to biopic tropes. While the film isn't particularly interested in Bernstein's career as a composer - his achievements mostly coming through bits of newscast or questions posed by journalists; the film applies that same connect-the-dots structure to Bernstein's personal life in a way that feels somewhat disjointed. Credit where credit is due - this isn't just a "portrait of a great man" story of tortured genius, but its failure to really pick a lane leaves it feeling oddly incomplete.

There's a spark of madness in Cooper's performance that is undeniable, even under some of the most impressive old age makeup I've ever seen (oh how far we've come since A Beautiful Mind). And while after a while it seems to be more of a collection of ticks and mannerisms than a fully fleshed out performance, one can't help but feel that the movie itself could have used some more of that go-for-broke energy that Cooper brings to his acting. There are certainly moments of impressive power in Maestro, but ultimately it feels like a series of incohesive scenes rather than a fully realized and complete work. You can feel Cooper conducting the hell out of it, but it's never quite the grand symphony it wants to be.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

MAESTRO | Directed by Bradley Cooper | Stars Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Vincenzo Amato, Michael Urie | Rated R for some language and drug use | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.


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