Maestro tells the story of Leonard Bernstein’s marriage and family and of his relationships with men. It’s intimate and inward. It acknowledges his genius and his iconic status in American life. It’s more about relationships than music. The directing and acting in the film were brilliantly done, but the overall feel and impact of the film didn’t reach brilliant.
Maestro stars Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein. Cooper co-wrote (with Josh Singer) and directed the film. Carey Mulligan plays his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre. Maestro begins in 1946 when they met. It proceeds through the 25 years of their marriage and on into Bernstein’s later life.
Leonard Berstein died in 1990. That seems like an impossible sentence. He was such a towering figure in American art and culture, he doesn’t feel gone. He feels like an everyday part of American life to this day. The legacy he left behind still resonates and sings in us.
When Leonard and Felicia married, she understood his sexuality and his attraction to men. They had three children together and a loving relationship. She merely asked for discretion on his part. When his relationships became too blatant, too gossiped about, she demanded that he pull back. She’d berate him with remarks like, “Fix your hair. You’re getting sloppy.”
A key scene in the marriage was when Felicia demanded that Leonard tell their daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) that the rumors about him were not true.
Jamie wrote Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein. It’s worth reading. Her book is credited with inspiring Maestro. Jamie is 71 years old now and has spent her life tending to her father’s legacy.
Another key scene was an extended argument Leonard and Felicia had, brilliantly acted and shot in one long take. Outside the apartment window a giant Snoopy floated by the in the Thanksgiving Day parade.
The performances were perfection. Carey Mulligan was fantastic, as was Bradley Cooper. They used makeup to age the two actors through the years instead of using different actors as time passed. This was the right decision. The prosthetics and make up were well done, the aging convincing.
Everyone chain smoked. The rooms were full of haze. Leonard smoked while rehearsing with an orchestra. Felicia died of cancer in 1978. Leonard continued smoking.
In slightly over 2 hours, the film shows Leonard Bernstein composing, conducting, teaching, and giving interviews only in limited ways. It’s a different approach to a biopic about a world-renowned composer and conductor to concentrate instead on his family and relationships. The musical triumphs and public acclaim are left for some other film, some other director.
So many separate details about Maestro were brilliant. The image above, for example. Leonard is onstage, conducting. He casts a giant shadow on the curtains behind him. Felicia watches in the wings, literally standing in his shadow. Despite the brilliant details, the overall whole was less than brilliant. As storytelling, it was average. It will be considered a major film and win awards I’m sure. I recommend you watch it. But maybe once is enough.
After a stint in theaters, it’s now streaming on Netflix.