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With “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper tells the story of a generation-defining artistic innovator in the most traditional way possible: through the familiar tropes and linear narrative of a standard biopic.

Directing and starring as the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Cooper has crafted a film that’s technically dazzling but emotionally frustrating. The script he co-wrote with Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) follows a well-trod, episodic path: This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Ultimately, it falls into the same trap as so many biopics, especially prestige pictures with major award aspirations: In covering a huge swath of an extremely famous person’s life, it ends up feeling superficial.

And yet, you should see it. Yes, this sounds contradictory, but “Maestro” is so consistently spectacular from an aesthetic perspective that it’s worth watching. The cinematography, costumes, and production design are all evocative and precise as they evolve with the times over 40 some-odd years of Bernstein’s life. Behind the camera, Cooper takes a big swing in making you feel as if you’re watching a movie that was made in the ’40s and continues to do so with each era. Shooting in high-contrast black and white and Academy ratio, Matthew Libatique—an Oscar nominee as director of photography on Cooper’s debut feature, “A Star Is Born”—works wonders with a single light bulb on a barren stage, for example. There’s a shot where Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre, who will become Bernstein’s wife, steps off a bus at night and walks up the street to the party where she’ll meet him for the first time, and it’s breathtaking in its cinematic authenticity. The lush Technicolor of scenes set in the ‘60s and ’70 offers its own vibrant allure. And inspired transitions from editor Michelle Tesoro carry the story across time and place in thrilling fashion.

Cooper has clearly taken great care in getting the details right, big and small. That includes spending six years learning how to conduct to perfect a particularly essential scene: a six-plus minute recreation of Bernstein leading the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973. (Yannick Nézet-Séguin was Cooper’s crucial conducting consultant.) The camera roams fluidly across the orchestra, choir, and soloists, the music overtaking his entire body and booming throughout this majestic edifice. Bernstein is passionate and rapturous with perspiration; this is the apex of his joy. The whole film is worth seeing in a theater before it begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20, but this lengthy, cathartic moment is one you’ll want to experience with the best possible picture and sound.

But while Bernstein’s music is woven throughout—including an amusing use of his “West Side Story” prologue during a period of marital discord—we never truly understand him deeply as a musician or a man. He’s a legend, a larger-than-life cultural force in mid-century America whose persona extends far beyond the rarefied circles of the classical music world. But the necessarily performative nature of Bernstein’s existence, as a closeted gay man, keeps us at a distance as viewers, too. Fully aware of his brilliance and increasing celebrity, he was always “on.” We spy a few glimmers of his intimate happiness with various men, including Matt Bomer as a clarinetist ex-boyfriend, with whom he shares a heartbreaking, tearful farewell on a Manhattan sidewalk. But a tantalizing, unfulfilled quality to the characterization lingers throughout.

Lenny’s relationship with Felicia was complicated, yet “Maestro” rarely digs far beyond the surface. The two share a bubbly, infectious chemistry as they meet and fall in love—and Cooper the director wisely lets these scenes, and later the couple’s arguments, play out in long, single takes. The affection between them feels genuine, and Mulligan is frequently magnificent, finding avenues in her portrayal of Felicia that elevate it beyond the mere woman-behind-the-man notion. And yet, the Costa Rican-Chilean actress is often literally in Bernstein’s shadow; one image finds her standing in the wings as her husband conducts, with the exaggerated shape of him swallowing her up as if he were a monster. (Mulligan is also the beneficiary of costume designer Mark Bridges’ most exquisite fashions throughout the film.) But how does Felicia truly feel about sharing her husband with a series of men, most younger and fawning? She catches him kissing a party guest in the hallway of their apartment in the historic Dakota building and icily scolds him: “Fix your hair. You’re getting sloppy.” That comes close to the real, raw emotion that would have given “Maestro” more heft.

Speaking of the skin-deep nature of the movie, much has been made about Cooper’s decision to wear elaborate prosthetics to make his transformation into Bernstein more complete. The prominent nose, in particular, has been a source of consternation, as Cooper is not Jewish. (Bernstein’s children have defended the choice.) Makeup guru Kazu Hiro, who won Academy Awards for turning Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for “The Darkest Hour” and Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly for “Bombshell,” does thoroughly convincing work here, especially when Bernstein appears as a 70-year-old man at the very beginning and end of the film.

Something does happen toward the film’s conclusion, though, that deserves criticism. It’s the late 1980s, and the frame has expanded to widescreen. Bernstein drives his Jaguar convertible, blaring R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Just as he zooms into the center of the shot, lead singer Michael Stipe yells the lyric “Leonard Bernstein!” Maybe this is something Bernstein did in real life; he clearly thought quite highly of himself, so maybe he was so tickled to be mentioned in this capacity. But in a movie, this choice was eye-rollingly on the nose. I groaned audibly.

Bernstein took chances with his work; that’s what made him great. “Maestro” would have been stronger if it had done the same.

In theaters now. On Netflix on December 20th.

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Maestro movie poster

Maestro (2023)

Rated R for some language and drug use.

130 minutes


Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealerge

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim

Maya Hawke as Jamie Bernstein

Sarah Silverman as Shirley Bernstein

Sam Nivola as Alexander Bernstein

Michael Urie as Jerry Robbins

Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran

Miriam Shor as Cynthia O'Neal

William Hill as Joseph

Oscar Pavlo as Claudio Arrau

Mallory Portnoy as Betty Comden

Sara Sanderson as Lil Hart

Kate Eastman as Ellen Adler






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