Despite the numbing wave of biopics we’ve seen recently, I still can’t help but find them kind of fascinating. It’s so interesting to see what parts of person’s life are left offscreen, and how that affects our views of said person (the Elvis we get in Luhrmann’s 2022 film is totally different from the version seen in Coppola’s 2023 Priscilla). In many ways, making a biopic is an intensely political act, one that can easily get messy, as demonstrated by Bradley Cooper’s newest film. Centered around the life legendary composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein built with his wife, Felicia, I’m sorry to report it’s a real mess of a movie. Sure, the acting is great (kind of. I’ll get to that.), and there are some decent shots, as the trailer shows, but acting and cinematography alone don’t make a great movie, especially when it’s slathered in Cooper’s self-important Oscar desperation. Ultimately, it’s a film whose biggest failures lie at the writing level, creating issues that not even the best actors or lighting departments can compensate for.
While the script is willing to acknowledge that Bernstein was a flawed person, it only does so in ways that make sure he never loses favor with the audience. He cheats on Felicia, but only because he ‘loves too much.’ He asks his wife to pause her dreams so he can pursue his, but this sexism is portrayed as being in service of ‘greatness.’ These moments are complicated by the fact that he understands his homosexuality would never be accepted in 1950s America, yet Cooper never really explores what it means for Bernstein to be gay, to be Jewish, or to have beliefs that seemed at war with each other (how can someone so frequently described as a humanitarian have helped write the notoriously racist West Side Story?). We never see how these intersecting identities alter how he moves through the world; maybe that’s because he’s so ensconced in tremendous wealth, but that’s yet another element that remains unexplored in the film. Despite its runtime clocking in at over two hours, Cooper seems to have elided everything that made Bernstein complexly human. Instead, we’re given a kind of hagiography, chronicling the life of a troubled but ultimately saintly man.
One scene toward the end captures this perfectly, as Cooper conducts the London Symphony in the same cathedral Bernstein did. Despite Cooper spending the better part of a decade training for this moment, highlighted by all the audio-visual panache pumped into the frame, it’s ultimately six minutes that don’t do anything to advance our understanding of Bernstein’s connection to music or those around him. It doesn’t serve the plot in any real way. The visuals throughout are stunning, if a bit heavy-handed in their use of shadow and alternating color palettes, but without tying those visuals to the emotional and psychological development of the characters, it all just feels kind of empty. The same can be said for the acting.
No one doubts Cooper or Carey Mulligan’s ability to act, but the way each approached their roles for this movie is questionable to say the least. A lot has been made about Cooper using a prosthetic nose to ‘look more Jewish,’ but I’ve seen almost no discussion of Mulligan, who’s supposed to play a Latina Jewish-convert. Being a gentile British woman, it’s fair to say Mulligan should’ve passed on this role; but if she absolutely insisted on taking a potentially career-making part from a Latina actress, the least she could have done is learn to pronounce things properly in Spanish. There were some moments where she spoke the language so badly, I flinched before turning my face away from the screen. Again, this isn’t to say these actors don’t do a great job with the script; they show great control over their wide-spanning emotional ranges and infuse each line with a ton of voice and character, but these aren’t just characters they’re playing. These are real people, and that fails to come through onscreen. No amount of misty-eyed monologues can fix the things these performances (and the film as a whole) lack.
As I said at the start of this review, this movie seemed more focused on dominating award season than telling a true story of nuanced human beings living in a complex world. Despite the soundtrack being filled with gorgeous music, I found silence to be the most interesting part of Maestro: everything it chose to omit says something not just about how this film wants us to remember Bernstein, but about what this film found worthy of considering. While I wanted to enjoy it, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year. Tons of flash with barely a spoonful of substance. If you see Maestro on Netflix this week, keep scrolling. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!