I watched Bradley Cooper's Maestro for the first time during awards season, every frame of the film practically crying out for awards like Oliver Twist crying out for more porridge. As awards season begins to wind down and the Indiana Film Journalists Association has announced its winners, I've sat down (Sorry, Brad!) with Maestro once again in an effort to surrender myself to the film and to truly immerse myself in its rhythms.
It was only in recent days that Cooper reportedly proclaimed in an interview that he frowns upon sitting in chairs on his set. It's a statement that was, of course, exaggerated by the media (Trust me. I'm the media. I exaggerate.). However, it provided me more thana little bit of a chuckle as I began watching Maestro once again and realized that Cooper's Leonard Bernstein, an iconic composer and conductor, is actually sitting during the film. It became a drinking game, quite honestly. Every time Bernstein sat down in a chair, I took a shot of whiskey.
Needless to say, I found Maestro intoxicating.
The truth is that I did, in fact, find Maestro immensely more satisfying the second time around. Once I was able to let go of the pressures of awards season consideration, I could truly surrender myself to this reflective yet forceful work of wonder that is less a biopic about Bernstein and more a love story about Bernstein's lifelong relationship with Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan).
As much as I loved Maestro, I would still say the film doesn't quite lives up to its potential. It's a film with masterful moments surrounded by narrative that never quite gels into the cohesive whole we long for it to be. Cooper co-wrote, directed, and stars in Maestro and you can tell that he feels this story in his bones. You can tell that Cooper feels immense love and compassion for these complex human beings even if Maestro does at times simplify those complexities.
Cooper makes us love the maestro himself, Bernstein, affectionately known as Lenny. He was the first American-born person to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and the London Symphony. Bernstein's name is a name synonymous with conducting and composing and teaching and music itself. While one can argue, accurately, that Maestro glosses over Bernstein's life to a degree this is not a film about Bernstein's life. It is a film about Bernstein's love. Maestro is a composition of sorts to Felicia, Bernstein's wife of 27 years who entered the relationship wide-eyed and knowing of Bernstein's attraction to and seduction of men. At his core, Bernstein was a seducer of life, of music, of audiences, of Felicia and, yes, of men. Does the film gloss over this complexity? Honestly, not really. It merely maintains it was part of the symphony that was Bernstein's life.
Maestro is a weighty film. Every word matters. Every note matters. At times, it's a touch exhausting yet never less than exhilarating. This is sublimely captured in one particular scene when Bernstein conducts Mahler's "Resurrection" at Ely Cathedral in the U.K. In this scene, Bernstein is full-on surrendered to the music and the universe it has created. It's mesmerizing to watch and transformative in a myriad of ways.
Maestro also represents growth as a filmmaker for Cooper, a growing confidence and a growing mastery of tone and atmosphere, framing and balance. At times, I found myself marveling at Cooper's ability to transform himself as an actor while also maintaining inspired direction of the film. Yes, there is a team alongside Cooper. However, make no mistake - this is a Bradley Cooper film.
As he proved with A Star is Born, Cooper is also masterful at casting his onscreen companions. Lady Gaga was an inspired choice for A Star is Born. Carey Mulligan is perhaps even more inspired in Maestro. In a lifetime of brilliant performances, Maestro is one of the best for Mulligan as she finds every nook and cranny of Felicia's heart and mind, body and soul. Early scenes posssess a retro vibe that is just extraordinary. As the relationship between Lenny and Felicia develops, one also watches Mulligan's transformation that is powerful and aching, brilliant and vulnerable. These were two people who were deeply in love and who deeply loved their three children, yet they were also two people who complemented one another rather than completed each other.
Both Cooper and Mulligan are previous Oscar nominees. It would be surprising if they aren't once again for Maestro.
The film's original score is, appropriately, provided by the late Bernstein himself. Years after his passing, he's still seducing us. Lensing by Matthew Libatique, rapidly becoming one of the few cinematographers whose work I eagerly anticipate, is somehow both universal and intimate, tremendously disciplined and spontaneous with the spirit of life.
Consider me seduced. Maestro is intoxicating.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic