Leonard Bernstein Biopic Lacks the Music

This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 New York Film Festival.

The Pitch: What makes a Maestro tick? Bradley Cooper’s second film as director, in which he also stars as the titular “maestro” Leonard Bernstein, attempts to understand the genius mind of one of the world’s most celebrated conductors, and how his struggles with his personal identity and relationship with wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) affected both his mind and heart.

Produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, among others, Maestro follows Bernstein’s life from when he is called on at the last minute to make his New York Philharmonic conducting debut (without a rehearsal!) to the peak of his career: composing the music to West Side Story, leading American symphony orchestras, writing the scores to feature films, and beyond. It is as much a celebration of his work and life of Bernstein as it is an emotional foray into his life away from the podium.

Bradley Cooper, You Will Never Be Lydia Tar: Cooper was in attendance for the film’s premiere at New York Film Festival, where the production crew and creative consultants, as well as Bernstein’s three children, were introduced (Cooper did not participate in the post-show Q&A or take the stage in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA). This was apt, as Maestro at times feels more like a love letter dedicated to the Bernstein children themselves than a film about their celebrated father.

Cooper loves Hollywood, and he also loves music, going to great lengths to study musicianship and train in the art of composing. There will no doubt be several comparisons to Todd Field’s acclaimed Tár, also about a (fictional) world-famous conductor, but what made Tár such a masterpiece was its devastating portrayal of an astonishing talent’s falling star. Meanwhile, the emotional core of Maestro is not Bernstein’s love for and devotion to music, but instead his relationship with his wife and the repercussions of it.

We do see occasional glimpses of Cooper’s Bernstein in full conducting action, and it is in these scenes that Cooper’s natural dynamism and magnetism shine through. But the film is so intent on having the audience be invested in the romantic dynamic that it is visually jarring. It is also a shame that for a biopic about a musical maestro, only a small part of the film actually explores his love for music; Bernstein’s connection to his music plays second fiddle to that of his relationships with other people.

Maestro (Netflix)

Author: Michael

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