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Maestro: Bradley Cooper’s Masterpiece

Maestro- Bradley Cooper’s Masterpiece

Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s new film about Leonard Bernstein, co-written by Cooper and Josh Singer, is the best biographical drama I’ve ever seen about a serious musician, and in strictly cinematic and narrative terms maybe the boldest, most inventive, even innovative movie about an artist since Fellini’s 8½. Bernstein’s life and work have been exhaustively documented in books, films, videos, and recordings. Bestriding the second half of the last century like a colossus, he mastered virtually all the many endeavors to which he set himself: composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, television educator, writer, critic, scholar, humanitarian, philanthropist, socio-political activist.

With all this so readily known, Cooper eschews the typical biographical approach and chooses to concentrate on the marriage between Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre Cohn, an elegant Chilean-born actress with a career of her own: a really intelligent decision as the marriage is where Bernstein’s expansive embrace of every aspect of his life from family to friends to creativity to sexuality is revealed in all its omnivorous, massively conflicted ambivalence. This is among the most beautiful, insightful, and powerful movies ever made about a complex and complicated marriage, and one of the most revealing about what it must be like to live in the orbit of a force of nature this gifted, accomplished, and irresistible. 

In an act of extraordinary generosity, Cooper gives Carey Mulligan, as Felicia, top billing. She earns it—there’s not a whiff of “suffering wife” in her performance, as there seems not to have been in the marriage either. When she catches Bernstein kissing a young man, she admonishes him not for being unfaithful—she knew infidelity was a given from the start—but for being so careless, so “sloppy” (her word): being indiscreet about his indiscretions far the crueler betrayal than adultery. The early scenes where Felicia and Lenny meet and fall in love are magical. When the cracks and fissures in the marriage emerge in the film’s merciless yet compassionately observed middle part, Felicia’s outburst of lacerating recrimination—done in a single take with a locked-off camera—tops anything I saw in new movies last year for sheer intensity. Yet Cooper never lets us forget that below the anger, the bitterness, the cruelty was a mutual love that sustained them their entire lives. 

The third part of the film takes up Felicia’s two-year struggle with the cancer that eventually killed her, age 56, in 1978. Before this, Lenny had fallen for a young man with whom he tried living an openly gay life in California. Unable to endure separation from Felicia and their three children for scarcely a year, he returned to New York and their home, where he devoted the next two years to caring for her. Throughout this section Mulligan gets so deep inside Felicia’s anguish, vulnerability, and courage you feel every distance between actor and role has dissolved. This is the most emotionally devastating death-by-illness I’ve seen in a film since Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.

Saying there are so many ways to go wrong playing Bernstein and that Cooper avoids them all is to risk making him sound merely studious, even cautious. On the contrary, like the subject himself, he is gloriously alive, thrillingly exuberant and flamboyant, yet fearless in revealing Bernstein in all his maddening egotism and boundless generosity. Cooper manages the almost unbelievable feat—helped by makeup that sets new standards for aging—of absorbing Bernstein’s appearance, patterns of speech, mannerisms, facial expressions, gestures, his very walk. Yet almost miraculously, the performance never lapses into mere impersonation. Cooper so completely embodies the man, the husband, the father, the conflicted bisexual profligate, and the seminal musician that everything feels fired and lit from within. 

It climaxes with an astounding recreation of the last six-and-a-half minutes of Bernstein’s legendary 1973 performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony in Ely Cathedral. Cooper spent six years preparing for this scene and conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (combined forces numbering over 200) with astonishing assurance. Far from a stunt, it draws together and focuses the love, charisma, brilliance, visceral commitment, depth of feeling, and transcendent musicmaking that led colleagues to describe their appearances with Bernstein as “life-changing.”

Maestro is Bradley Cooper’s second effort as director and it is a masterpiece, the only movie of 2023 touched by greatness. It also establishes him at 48 as an authentic auteur whose future films must be anticipated with keenest interest and highest hopes.


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