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The Agony and Ecstasy of Leonard Bernstein

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Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is a wonderful look at the composer that dives headfirst into his brilliant work and complicated inner life.

Jason McDonald / Netflix

One early scene in Bradley Cooper’s Maestro delivers the kind of creaky exposition a viewer might expect from a major biographical film arriving in the thick of Oscar season. A young Leonard Bernstein (played by Cooper) is at lunch with one of his mentors, who suggests that he change his last name to something like “Burns” in order to seem less Jewish to a mainstream audience. It’s something that really happened, an example of the barriers that Bernstein had to break through in his career. But as dramatic material, the moment is presented as a piece of info to be dumped into the audience’s lap.

Thankfully, Maestro, which was also directed by Cooper, is no staid biopic. Midway through this conversation, Bernstein asks his companion (and later wife), Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), if she wants to leave. When she says yes, he grabs her by the arm and magically transports them both out of the scene and to a theatrical stage. Out of nowhere, a ballet erupts around them; sailors dance to “Fancy Free” (a song that inspired Bernstein’s musical On the Town) and the composer jumps among them in his Navy whites. This film isn’t some boring lecture, Cooper is telling the audience. If you want to understand this man, you need to be inside the great work he did.

The scene also wonderfully illustrates Bernstein’s connection with Felicia, a deep and lifelong partnership nonetheless riddled with turmoil because of his affairs (mostly with men). Bernstein’s commitment to his art—composing, conducting, and generally serving as a famed ambassador of classical music—is the crux of Maestro. But Cooper juxtaposes Bernstein’s outward interests with the inward, private unrest he felt over the chaos of his love life. Felicia both serves as a stabilizing force against the pressures of fame and suffers as an oft-ignored romantic partner.

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In short, this is a movie about Bernstein’s passions, and how they benefited and sabotaged him over his long career. A viewer signing up for a traditional soup to nuts explainer of the composer’s life might leave disappointed. There are no scenes of him thoughtfully composing the score to West Side Story in his study, nor thorough explanations of his political activism, even though Cooper and his co-writer, Josh Singer, bounce forwards and backwards through the major events of his life. They seem less interested in digging through the details than in capturing a mood, putting the audience in the whizzy headspace of a man constantly overflowing with creative energy and usually struggling to find the best ways to channel it. We see dream ballets and triumphant performances of Mahler, but also ruminative interviews revealing Bernstein’s angst about not composing enough in his lifetime.

I’m still somewhat surprised that Cooper, an actor once known as the eager-beaver sixth lead on the TV show Alias, has evolved into one of the most exciting and ambitious voices in filmmaking. His 2018 remake of A Star Is Born left me flabbergasted; he turned a rusty old piece of Hollywood mythmaking into a modern love story that felt swoony, dazzling, and still somehow earthy. In that film, Cooper played a fictional musician wrestling with his demons. Here, as Bernstein, he’s clad in layers of makeup (the controversial nose looks less pronounced in action) that impressively mimic the man’s real face but somehow make him feel harder to reach.

Though Bernstein is the center of the story, and the character everyone revolves around, his unknowability is crucial to Maestro. Instead, Mulligan’s Felicia functions more as the film’s heart. Real love exists between the central couple, even as Felicia is well aware of Bernstein’s relationships with men before she marries him. The friction that emerges between them over the years is rooted less in betrayal and more in Bernstein’s periods of emotional withdrawal, as he pours himself into other partnerships and into his work. Being an artist demands that Bernstein plumb his unspoken obsessions, but he struggles to present a safe face to the world, and Cooper conflates Bernstein having to stay in the closet with the madness of celebrity.

So as Maestro touches on Bernstein’s compositions, personal dalliances, and later-in-life family tragedies, it becomes clearer and clearer that this is also a biographical film about what didn’t happen. Cooper’s performance is loaded with remorse—over projects unrealized, over the way Bernstein’s celebrity got in the way of him generating new music, and of course over his fundamental inability to figure out exactly what he wanted in his love life. It’s a celebration of the man, but also a quiet tragedy, with many regrets piling up to a muted and devastating conclusion.

Source: The Atlantic

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