If you approach the new Leonard Bernstein movie biography expecting some sort of pragmatic exploration of how he composed the score for WEST SIDE STORY or CANDIDE, or how he worked with great artists like Stephen Sondheim, you’ll be disappointed. MAESTRO is not that kind of biopic. It’s not about his process; it’s about his passions. Sure, Bernstein’s music fills the soundtrack and we see him conducting orchestras numerous times, but mostly what the film shows us is how the man lived the same way he conducted: big, emotional, and rather all over the place. It’s a film that tells you less about events in his life and more about how he felt while living them. It’s a biography told as highlights in a scrapbook, a pastiche, really – a mélange of Lenny’s art, family, gay affairs, and a very complicated yet joyous marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre.
Co-written (with Josh Singer), directed by, and starring Bradley Cooper, it’s a love letter to such passions with every image in the film conveying a similar zeal. Cooper’s work here as a filmmaker is sometimes sprawling, sometimes unwieldy, but it sure feels like Lenny through and through. And yet as fervent as Cooper is in conjuring the maestro, and all that surrounds him, the heart of the man and the picture belongs to his wife, played in her best screen work to date by the luminous and wondrous Carey Mulligan. For my money, it’s the performance of the year.
Yet, she’s not the only thing that is stunning here. Aficionados of Bernstein will recognize all that Cooper and company get incredibly right about the man and his life, even going so far as to shoot the scenes at his home in Connecticut in Bernstein’s actual home. Cooper conveys his own passion for detail from the incredible makeup work, sure to be this year’s Oscar winner, to the feel for the 1950s and 60s in the outstanding production design, the expert costuming, and the high-contrast cinematography of the period.
Cooper has nailed his subject too, evoking Lenny’s carriage, nasally baritone, and his locks forever flopping about. That Cooper has chosen to keep the man at somewhat arms’ length is a choice in both his writing and performing, never letting us get quite as close to the conductor as we want to. Indeed, at times, Cooper plays Bernstein as if he’s not really talking to people, but at them. His Lenny seems to be often giving a performance, as sage, or loving dad, even as Mahler’s number one fan. It’s all part of what Lenny feels comfortable telling the world, not necessarily all that he has to say.
To that point, it’s interesting that so much of what Cooper shows us of Bernstein as a character and film bio is about the man performing. His over-the-top gestures while conducting, his bald-faced lying to his daughter about his affairs with gay men, his exuberant banter to hold party guests enraptured…it’s all calculation in Lenny’s wily ways. As if Bernstein knew that not being able to fully reveal himself meant that what he could show was in its way, staged.
Still, even less than the full Lenny is a lotta Lenny. At times, it seems like he’s about to burst out of the screen and become his own 3-D effect. Which makes the scenes of tenderness with Felicia all the more powerful. They shared an incredible intimacy, mind, body, and soul. Always touching, always sitting close together, with their affectionate whispering kept from others. Even their mutual proclivity for chain-smoking was part of their vivid connection. They were two peas in the pod, to the point that Felicia not only understood most of Lenny’s foibles but probably tolerated them far more than she should have.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mulligan’s performance is that we understand Lenny better because of how she is around him. And while he’s the subject here, she’s the one we relate to and cheer. Nowhere is this more evident than when she falls very ill in the story’s third act and Mulligan’s director generously hands the film to her. Without detailing all the incredible things that Mulligan does in the last hour, suffice it to say you will be both enthralled and devastated by her performance. (I will only tell you that her interactions with a box of tissues would make for a master class in acting between the lines.)
Yet, even during the tragedy that the Bernsteins faced together, the film remains brimming with passion. The film is entertaining and then some too, even when the couple has a vicious argument on Thanksgiving in a New York hotel room. The Bernsteins have just had a profane battle with each other over his sloppy infidelities, and as their heated convo reaches its zenith, the ginormous balloon of Snoopy floats by their picture window. The float is so close that either could touch it, but they don’t even notice it as they’re too wrapped up in their anger. It may be the funniest shot in any movie this year.
In only his second time in the director’s chair, Cooper shows confidence and flair beyond his years. He even shows off a good deal of the time with self-conscious edits, sly dissolves, and some incredibly witty match cuts. Cooper is directing big here, just as Bernstein always directed his orchestras big. It’s actually perfect for the material as MAESTRO captures the gusto of its subject if not all of the man. There may be better films this year, but few that carry such brio.