Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Maestro (2023): A Review (Review #1780)



I have been assured that a film can be both a good movie and a plea for Oscar consideration. As such, Maestro is a fine example of both. On the former, Maestro is quite good, flowing easily from fantasy to reality and filled with top-level performances. On the latter, Maestro is cowriter/director/producer/star Bradley Cooper's naked GIVE ME AN OSCAR film, as passionate a plea for Oscar glory as has come down the pipeline in a while.

Maestro covers the career of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper), particularly his marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Lenny is thrust into the limelight when, as the assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the 25-year-old Bernstein fills in at almost the last minute with no rehearsal time. 

His unexpected debut is a total smash, elevating him to the highest ranks of conductors as well as composers. Despite a romantic relationship with clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), Lenny soon falls quickly for Felicia, a Chilean aspiring actress who like Bernstein, is attempting to forge her way in the artistic world of New York.

Felicia is enthralled with Lenny, and he too seems to be madly in love with her. Eventually they marry and have three children. Bernstein's career rises higher and higher, not just becoming America's first world-renowned conductor (and an openly Jewish one too) but also a feted composer of such works as Broadway's On the Town and West Side Story along with symphonic work. Felicia, for her part, has a respectable if not grand stage career, working more at home than the stage.

However, things soon start shifting. Success for Bernstein have corrupted him somewhat. He is more open about his same-sex liaisons, much to Felicia's irritation. She is not horrified or even particularly angry about his same-sex liaisons, but had asked Lenny to be discreet, which he is now no longer. One particularly enraged fight on Thanksgiving has her tell him that if he is not careful, he will end up a "lonely old queen". Perhaps as a way of purging himself from his demons, he creates the symphonic work Mass, and despite their struggles they remain together until Felicia's death from cancer.

At the end, Leonard Bernstein is now as open as possible with his trysts, even being physically intimate with a conducting student of his from the Tanglewood Music Center. He is a legend, but he is also a lonely old queen, dancing his last years away and still missing Felicia. 

Maestro has an interesting set up in that about half the film is in black-and-white, half in color. It is a credit to Cooper and editor Michelle Tesoro that the transition is not jarring. In fact, it actually works quite well, suggesting life pre-and-post marriage. To my mind, the black-and-white section works best. We see the evolution of the romance between Bernstein and Montealegre as well as their rising careers. It does not shy too far away from Bernstein's same-sex relationships (the first time we see Bernstein is when it is clear he was in bed with another man) but we can see how they did genuinely fall in love.

Once we get to color, we get a shift in their relationship. I think that might have been the purpose, but it does leave a bit of a mystery over how Felicia eventually grew to accept or at least tolerate Leonard's infidelities. "Fix your hair. You're getting sloppy," Felicia snaps at Lenny at a party after seeing him kiss a young male guest. While the double meaning is clear, I do not remember ever seeing a moment before this that Felicia was aware of Lenny's proclivities. Was she angry that he was fooling around in general or with a man in particular? The black-and-white section showcased their relationship as a genuine love story, and I do not question that. I do, however, question whether she had ever expressed any kind of reservations or disappointment or disillusionment over his activities or desires. 

As Maestro goes on, Lenny's private indiscretions become more the focus. It is not a bad thing, but on reflection I wonder if Bernstein would want people to focus on what he did with his body than on his body of work.

As a director, Bradley Cooper does some wonderful work in Maestro. A sequence where his and Felicia's relationship finds a reinterpretation from a Wonderful Town dance number works remarkably well. While a flight of fancy, it actually felt surprisingly grounded. The black-and-white section where Felicia brings Lenny to the stage and flirt via dialogue is so well acted and staged. Just before we transition to color, we get a visual cue where we see Felicia almost literally standing in Leonard's shadow.  Again, it makes me think that the black-and-white section was more inventive, more original. Once we shift to color, Maestro becomes more a standard biopic. 

Even here, however, Cooper makes strong choices. The Thanksgiving argument between them is done in one master shot. We do not cut to any closeups or move away from them. It is as if Cooper is making the viewer a witness to Felicia's mix of rage and fear, Lenny's arrogance and denial. 

Cooper also gets strong performances out of his cast. Mulligan has been one of our best actresses working today. Maestro shows her in top form. Felicia does have rather patrician tones in her delivery, but I figure this is how she spoke. Mulligan can communicate her mix of rage and public embarrassment in silence as well. At the Mass debut, she observes Leonard holding his latest boy-toy's hand openly while sitting next to her. The emotions swirling through her: the public humiliation, the hurt, the anger, all flow through Mulligan's face.

Cooper does well in the film too. I would argue that, again, in the color section, he is too actorly and mannered with his focus on getting Bernstein's gravelly voice and physical mannerisms. In the black-and-white section, we see just a nice young man on the make, eager to get a career and a girl. At that point, we can almost forgive how in his enthusiasm for Felicia he threw away his then-romantic/sexual partner Oppenheim. There is a sweetness in his courting of Felicia that makes Lenny likeable. At the party where they first meet, they have a conversation where he points out their similarities that plays so well.

As a side note, I do wonder why Snoopy was so important to Leonard, but I digress.

Maestro also has surprisingly strong performances from Sarah Silverman as Leonard's sister Shirley and Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim. While both are small performances and are pretty much gone when we go to color, they still are memorable.

One aspect in Maestro that is brilliant is in how the film used Bernstein's music to set mood. Oftentimes in film, people will use music not written specifically for the film to create moments with varying degrees of success. Maestro, however, uses such works as selections from Fancy Free or the Postlude from A Quiet Place to both set the mood and advance the story. Even when not using Bernstein's music, such as when we hear Bernstein's beloved Gustav Mahler, the music works well. 

It is also a chance to hear the breath and variety of Bernstein's music, everything from West Side Story to symphonic works. 

Perhaps using R.E.M.'s It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) was a misstep. I get that perhaps Maestro was signaling that by the end of his life and career, Bernstein's ego was now thoroughly out-of-control. Still, somehow it comes across as tacky. 

Finally, on the issue of the makeup use. There was controversy over the use of prostethics to make the Gentile Cooper look like the Jewish Bernstein. I think the makeup worked, especially if you want Cooper to look like Bernstein. Cooper, after all, was going for as close to an embodiment of Bernstein as possible in appearance, voice and mannerisms. My view is that the controversy was blown out of proportion.

Maestro is not a perfect film. It is, I think, longer than it should be. Sometimes one does feel as if you have to know who some of the other people in the film are to justify their involvement. One would, more than likely, not have a firm knowledge of who Aaron Copland or Jerome Robbins were, let alone the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. I also think that both Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre would not want to have their private lives be revealed in this way or in any way at all. However, Maestro works as a portrait of creative people in love who still struggled to reconcile themselves to each other. A love story and insight into creativity, Maestro works well.

Felicia Montealegre Bernstein: 1922-1978
Leonard Bernstein: 1918-1990


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