I don’t know where or how Bradley Cooper got the ambition to make this powerfully challenging film, or the fortitude to both direct and co-script it while playing the leading character, but it is clearly a labor of love. Many passion projects lose something on the way to the screen, but Maestro is an exception: a deeply felt, magisterial film that provides its leading man with a formidable showcase and a captivating role for his costar, Carey Mulligan.
Like many other baby boomers, I grew up watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on television and retain a vivid memory of the charismatic conductor. My admiration for him grew as I became aware of his many accomplishments outside the world of conducting: writing the score for On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story, not to mention On the Waterfront.
Watching this account of his life and times, I reveled in knowing who “Betty and Adolph” were (lyricists and performers Comden and Green), recognizing the overture to Candide, enjoying the distinctive voice of Edward R. Murrow conducting a television interview, and other hallmarks that Cooper weaves throughout the film, which touches on institutional anti-Semitism and other societal matters as the setting moves through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
How someone unfamiliar with any or all of that will respond to Maestro I cannot guess, any more than a young person could understand that there was a time when being homosexual was considered taboo. Bernstein’s “double life” is a big part of the story being told, as he falls completely in love with a beautiful young actress named Felicia Montealegre while carrying on with a never-ending series of young male paramours.
With Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg as executive producers and the full cooperation of Bernstein’s three children, Cooper was able to utilize all of the composer’s music and shoot scenes in Carnegie Hall, at the Koussevitsky Shed in Tanglewood, and in Connecticut, where Bernstein and his wife had a home. The result is an often-thrilling collage of personal and professional milestones, running on a parallel track to his loving but complicated relationship with Felicia.
Maestro goes on longer than it has to—like almost every film I see these days—and could be accused of oversharing in its depiction of Felicia’s battle with cancer. But the movie has so much going for it that I am inclined not to complain too much. It nourished me as few other recent pictures have and made me want to stand up and cheer. In other words, Bravo!