Review: In Maestro, a Beautifully Rendered Biopic, Director and Star Bradley Cooper Delivers Again
Bradley Cooper sure has come a long way since The Hangover, and we're all the luckier for it. The one-time comic leading man has bold ambitions, and if his first two directorial efforts—2018's A Star is Born and now Maestro, about the life, work and relationships of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein—are any indication, he's well on his way to being a filmmaker to watch.
Like in A Star is Born, Cooper aims high for Maestro, creating a sweeping mid-century period piece while wearing many additional hats in the production, including writer (with Josh Singer, Spotlight, First Man), producer and, most notably, star of this emotionally rich and beautifully composed biopic. With the help of Oscar-winning prosthetic make-up artist Kazu Hiro (Bombshell, Darkest Hour) and apparently a voice coach, Cooper transforms into Bernstein, portraying the artist from a young man getting his break filling in as conductor at Carnegie Hall to an aged widower recalling the many tumultuous, memorable years with his wife, Felicia Montealegre (a devastatingly wonderful Carey Mulligan plays the Costa-Rican born actor).
Most biopics falter by either trying to do too much, covering too many years in a person's life to the point of oversaturation, or doing too little, narrowing their focus so much that it's impossible to know their subject at all. Neither is a great result, and Cooper and Singer seem to have found a sweet spot in Maestro in recounting Bernstein's adulthood through relationships (with both men and women) and professional milestones (Bernstein composed the music for West Side Story, among so much else). Through it all, the connection between Leonard and Felicia is the driving force behind the film, one that transcends every era, each of their egos and so much more. Together, Cooper and Mulligan deliver some of their best work to date, and the chemistry on screen is undeniable.
As a filmmaker, Cooper has only grown in confidence since the already quite strong A Star is Born. Early moments in Bernstein's life are in vintage black-and-white, giving the film a sense of time and history; and working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who also filmed A Star is Born), the film takes artistic risks with its shots and framing that are a delight to behold. The sweeping pans, the matching cross-cuts, even a sort-of ballet scene between the couple might not sound like a good idea on the page, but Cooper and team make them sing.
In a film that's ultimately about how one ambitious man balances (or fails to) his work and his relationships, Maestro finds a way to beautifully afford both their due. The film's two most powerful scenes couldn't be more different, or impressive. Professionally, it's Bernstein furiously and passionately conducting a massive orchestra and chorus through Mahler's Second Symphony, music and emotion overwhelming him, Felicia and likely everyone in the cathedral. Personally, it's a moment during New York's iconic Thanksgiving Day Parade when tensions between Leonard and Felicia are particularly high. Mulligan finally gives Felicia a moment to lose her cool, all of Leonard's philandering wearing on her nerves. But even as she shouts at him, she's reading him closely, as only someone who knows and loves him dearly could.
Seeing Cooper on the press tour for Maestro (now that the SAG strike is essentially over) has been unsettling, if only because his central performance is so wholly consuming. It's almost unexpected to see his own chiseled jawline and sparkling blue eyes, after being so taken in by his Bernstein on screen. And to hear him speak in his own voice, well...I've done a double-take at least once, having to remind myself which is which man.
As a piece of art, an accomplished piece of filmmaking with a clear vision, Maestro is an engaging, immersive experience, which in itself is enough to strongly recommend it. As a study in interpersonal relationships between people with passions and egos and expectations of themselves and others, where complicated, sticky situations are inevitable over years of shared history, Maestro delivers with depth and authenticity.
Maestro is in theaters beginning December 1 and streaming on Netflix December 20.
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