Following 2018’s A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper is back in the director’s chair for another musically-oriented film, a biopic of the composer Leonard Bernstein entitled Maestro. And yet, this isn’t really a conventional biopic at all. Rather, it’s the portrait of a marriage between Bernstein (Cooper) and Felicia (a luminous Carey Mulligan who takes the headline credit). His career is more in the background, yet occasionally comes to the fore with exhilarating force.
We first meet Bernstein at a pivotal moment in his working life. A phone call informs him that he will have to step in to conduct the New York Philharmonic when the guest conductor catches the flu. A career-making performance sets him on a trajectory of becoming the first great American conductor, while at the same time pursuing a parallel career as composer of his own music as well as the classics of musical theater such as West Side Story and On the Town. In the midst of his upward trajectory he meets Felicia Montealegre, an actor who was gaining a reputation for herself on Broadway and on television. The two establish an instant rapport despite – or perhaps because of – his fluid sexuality. They finish each others’ sentences, call each other darling, and enjoy the same things: parties, champagne, music, the theater and chain-smoking (so much so that even then gaps between the links are made up of cigarettes).
It’s clear that Felicia also provides a camouflage for Bernstein’s liaisons with men, but she’s no simple ‘beard’. In fact, one of the more refreshing aspects of the film is how the complexities of their relationship are explored with a refusal to fall-back on conventional social mores. Lenny is bisexual, perhaps polyamorous: when he meets friends with their new baby, he tells the tot that he slept with both parents in a moment of amusing oversharing. While not resorting to a simplistic dualism, Cooper’s Bernstein is a troubled soul. In fact, his sexuality is relatively simple compared to his striving for both popular success with his own music and respectability with his conducting career.
Bernstein refused to hide his jewishness, but more at Felicia’s insistence than his own conviction. He also has a tendency to yearn for acceptance, even as his appetites send him into dangerous territories and his career takes him away from the family he obviously loves. “You’re getting sloppy,” Felicia tells him at one moment, brushing his hair. She has helped create him. She influences how he dresses and conducts his career – conducting the conductor – as well as their family. His three children appear to be happy and well-adjusted, though they all long for the sparse attention that he can grant them.
Cooper’s performance is sublime, delicately balancing the problem of playing a ham while not becoming a ham. He brings out Bernstein’s occasional cruelty and deep depression, which he tends to project on his wife. A scene where he assures his daughter that the rumours about him aren’t true is perfectly poised – the look of slight implosion on his face when she says how relieved she is devastating. Likewise, Mulligan makes Felicia a force to be reckoned with, a woman who maintains a front at great personal cost only to be sideswiped by tragedy. If there is one criticism here, it would be the neglect of Felicia’s participation in the radical politics of the day: she was both anti-war and pro-Black Panther party.
Cooper’s direction is far more composed here than A Star Is Born. Indeed, there is a real sense of a filmmaker finding his confidence and voice. A visual flamboyance is allowed only for the most emotional scenes, to be played out at a discreet distance with an immobile framing. His use of monochrome and colour, as well as different aspect ratios, portray the decades-long span of Bernstein’s career. Maestro itself has the feel of a symphony, with movements and beats and ellipses when years, even many years pass. Bernstein was a theatrical conductor, a man who drew the attention to him even as he brought an orchestra to its apotheosis. In one remarkable sequence, Cooper shows his combined mastery as both a director and actor in recreating a performance that would have done Lenny proud.
The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty