Movie review: Maestro reveals duelling Bernsteins living within a single legend

Movie review: Maestro

Bradley Cooper brings a heap of passion and a stylish eye to a dysfunctional love story that strips artistic ego down to the studs.  Echoing the core themes of an entirely different film about Leonard Bernstein, Maestro may have you asking who plays Bernstein better: Bradley Cooper, or Cate Blanchett?

Maestro

3.5/5

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Sarah Silverman, Tim Rogan

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Written by: Bradley Cooper, Josh Singer

Running time: 2 hrs 9 mins

Rating: Restricted

Opens theatrically December 20,2023

Now streaming on Netflix

By Katherine Monk

Who does Lenny better? Is it contestant number one, the actor-turned director Bradley Cooper who orchestrates a thoughtful period biopic in the ambitious Maestro? Or, is it contestant number two, the lingering emotional menace played by Cate Blanchett in last year’s Tàr?

Sure, wearing perfect prosthetics and a tailored wardrobe to ensure the portrayal feels faithful to the often contradictory original, Cooper is actually playing the character of Leonard Bernstein in this passion project. But it’s Blanchett’s turn as the Bernstein-inspired über bitch in Todd Field’s Tàr that keeps intruding in the mix of movie nostalgia and musical history that is Maestro.

In fact, the two movies are oddly complementary to one another, because while Maestro fully animates the legend of Leonard Bernstein and his unlikely rise to symphonic superstardom, Tàr explores the impact of his larger-than-life image on others.

Conductor Lydia Tàr manufactured her back story, invented a fictional liaison with Bernstein and consumed her protégées to feed her ego. It all seemed a little over-the-top, a little too lesbian gothic, to land as anything other than an intellectual horror story for readers of The New Yorker.

Cate Blanchett Tàr

Cate Blanchett directs the orchestra in Todd Field’s Tàr, a film that pays dark homage to the legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

Yet, after watching Cooper stroke the white baton as the conflicted American composer and conductor, we can see how Field  was using the idea of a grand phoney to inform his investigation of creative ego.

The key ingredient in both films is the screeching dissonance that connects art and artifice. After all, art demands a certain degree of fakery and exaggeration, a permission slip to reinvent reality. By the same token, anything that feels remotely forced or psychologically irrelevant can crush any well-intended creation into a contrived, two-dimensional bore.

Leonard Bernstein Mahler LP

A frame from the film Tar, a movie about a duplicitous conductor played by Cate Blanchett. Leonard Bernstein was the ghost in every scene of Todd Field’s psychological horror story.

Leonard Bernstein embodied these dynamic forces and deep doubts in every moment he put himself before the public, which makes him such a rich character to explore — even when he, and his tarry-eyed protégées — feel morally bereft.

The key to understanding this strange, off-centre space is duplicity, and the idea that for every note played aloud, there is a shadow strain on the other side of the scales giving it shape.

For example, when we first meet the character of Leonard as a young man in Maestro, he’s hanging out with other musicians, and engaging in homosexual relationships. It’s 1950s America, and while the post-war world is progressing, being a gay man isn’t yet socially acceptable for the masses.

To survive, and to thrive, Bernstein adopts a heterosexual public persona. He also marries a woman he considers his intellectual equal, as well as his spiritual double. But for all the effort, all the carefully orchestrated performances that came together to form the score of his life, Bernstein never seems satisfied — at least not in Cooper’s interpretation.

Maestro offers us a portrait of an artist as a young man, and an old man, who remains naggingly unconvinced of his own truth. It’s not an attractive trait, because it tends to engender a needy reliance on others — a constant fluffing and affirming of ego — which is why the character of Lenny (and Tar, for that matter) remain remarkably unsympathetic.

Cooper is brave to embrace the unflattering bits right off the bat, and it lends Maestro a gritty emotional texture that brings a counterbalance to the smooth, aesthetically gorgeous cinematography.

There is no doubt everything Cooper puts before the camera is physically beautiful, whether it’s the detailed recreations of 1950s New York City, the sight of tight-clothed male dancers in sailor suits, or the stitch-perfect period costumes and production design.

Cooper is brave to embrace the unflattering bits right off the bat, and it lends Maestro a gritty emotional texture that brings a counterbalance to the smooth, aesthetically gorgeous cinematography.

Bernstein had an eye for perfection, and an appetite to appropriate it, which gives him all the push-pull elements Cooper needed in a central character. He is wonderfully complex, and Cooper finds a handle through the shared terrain of performance.

Cooper is acting his heart out, directing his brains out, and conducting his pants off. He leaves it all on the big screen, waving the conductor’s baton with the conviction of a sea captain on a sinking ship. He captures a childlike sense of awe and desperation in every grand sweep of the arms, as though Bernstein believed he could purge his own demons if he just lost himself in the music long enough.

Such acts of self-delusion usually add up to tragedy, but in Maestro — as well as Tar — these are just more intimate moments of performance, because from start to finish, both characters are inhabiting a role.

Cooper is acting his heart out, directing his brains out, and conducting his pants off. He leaves it all on the big screen, waving the conductor’s baton with the conviction of a sea captain on a sinking ship.

The truly authentic part of themselves has been sacrificed on the altar of success, leaving them a little lost, depressed and empty. In each case, they become their own villain, condensing the drama around the central character as he/she fights for integration.

In a world that keeps splintering, this spiritual quest constantly flirts with disaster, raising the suspense — but often pushing us away from empathy. Cooper’s Lenny certainly emerges as a more sympathetic human than Tar, but that isn’t saying much.

Bradley Cooper Bernstein Maestro

Bradley Cooper directs himself as Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of Netflix.

Both Bernstein-inspired entities cloak themselves in vampire-like creative privilege, sucking the lifeblood from those around them to feed their work. The world helps them justify these acts of emotional cannibalism because it celebrates the beauty of the resulting artefacts, but it can’t erase the stubborn self-loathing that follows them home, and creeps into their bed.

Forever suspecting they are not truly worthy, and fearful of being unveiled as imposters, their only salvation arrives in the act of performance — when all the fakery and honesty fuse to create a moment in time that cannot be denied, even if it’s delivered by actors. In this way, Maestro’s creative self-consciousness serves the story, as well as Cooper’s detailed directing style, because it reflects Leonard Bernstein’s elusive truth: Everything was performance. And performance was everything.

@katherinemonk

Main image: Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre. Courtesy of Netflix.
THE EX-PRESS, December 25, 2023

 

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Review: Maestro

User Rating

3 (7 Votes)

Summary

3.5Score

Maestro offers us a portrait of an artist as a young man, and an old man, who remains naggingly unconvinced of his own truth. It’s not an attractive trait, because it tends to engender a needy reliance on others — a constant fluffing and affirming of ego — which is why this depiction of Leonard Bernstein from Bradley Cooper remains remarkably unsympathetic. Cooper is brave to embrace the unflattering bits right off the bat, lending Maestro a gritty emotional texture that brings a counterbalance to the smooth, aesthetically gorgeous cinematography. Yet, for all the style and top-notch performances from the ensemble, Maestro never feels natural. -- Katherine Monk

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