‘Maestro’ movie review: Carey Mulligan steals the show in Bradley Cooper’s uneven but stylish drama

While Bradley Cooper can hold down the technical elements that make ‘Maestro’ good, his inability to bring the same control to the script does not go unnoticed

December 21, 2023 02:25 pm | Updated December 22, 2023 02:36 pm IST

A still from ‘Maestro’

A still from ‘Maestro’

What does it mean to look at an artist’s life? To take a step back and lay out their work, amateur and seminal, and have a bird’s eye view of how they created, what motivated them and what satisfied them. It is an exercise that is easy to replicate but difficult to master. In Maestro, Bradley Cooper approaches this task uniquely, focusing on the interpersonal relationships of legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Cooper, who also essays Bernstein in the film, specifically focuses on Bernstein’s nearly three decade-long marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).

As his second directorial venture, Maestro is a whirlwind journey that Cooper commands well. Accompanied by Matthew Libatique’s visuals that seem to mimic the symphonic flows of Bernstein’s compositions, the film charts his relationship with Felicia, right from when they first met, to her eventual demise from cancer in 1978. This period also overlapped with the peak of Bernstein’s creative success. Written with Josh Singer, Cooper’s screenplay is a study of how these two aspects of Bernstein’s life inspired, and affected, each other. As the composer’s success grew, so did discontent in his married life. This largely is also shown as stemming from Bernstein’s numerous affairs, often with men.

Maestro (English)
Director: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, and others
Run time: 129 minutes
Storyline: Spanning over three decades, the film chronicles Leonard Bernstein’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre, as the legendary composer reaches the height of success

For anyone curious, Maestro is not a biopic, or rather not a biopic in the traditional sense which familiarises the audience with an artist’s work. Cooper’s writing is eager to move away from an expected method of chronicling the greatest hits of Bernstein, which is fair, but he moves so far away that even when the film brims with Bernstein’s compositions, their absence in Cooper’s portrayal is significant.

For a lot of people, this will be their first introduction to Bernstein as a person. Many would have undoubtedly heard Bernstein’s compositions without being aware of his name. However, it would serve the film well if it remembered that it was portraying not one but two artists on screen. Felicia Montealegre Bernstein was a stage and television actress, who not only inspired Bernstein’s work but collaborated with him on occasion. Yet, you would not know much of this from Maestro.

The early promotional material for the film included a poster of Carey Mulligan as Felicia. With her back to the camera, Felicia is shown gazing out into the dark, a cigarette in hand. It spurred conversation about the precedence Felicia’s role will be taking in a film about her husband. Maybe it will turn out to be Felicia’s film after all! However, at the end of over two hours, you are left convinced that this was supposed to be Felicia’s film; they just could not figure out how to make it one.

Their courtship in the film shows Leonard drawing up similarities between himself and Felicia, saying that they both are in careers that demand versatility. “You need to take all the pieces, all the bits of you scattered across the varied landscapes and form and create the veritable person that stands before me now,” Cooper as Bernstein tells Felicia. That the film didn’t go on to pick up the different narrative pieces that Felicia had to offer was a mistake.

Even billed as a love story and not a biopic, the script ends up as an unbalanced take. How their relationship with each other consumed their individual lives and the art, music, and performances they put out is a theme not given enough time. Bernstein speaks of music, and he speaks of his wife. He is then shown conducting his pieces with passion. Yet none of this feels linked with a cohesive thread though they all emerge from the same person.

This image released by Netflix shows Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, left, and Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran in a scene from ‘Maestro’

This image released by Netflix shows Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, left, and Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran in a scene from ‘Maestro’ | Photo Credit: Jason McDonald

Though Felicia’s part in inspiring and in working with the maestro is overshadowed, Mulligan as Felicia overshadows Cooper’s performance. She infuses an otherwise surface-level part with a much-needed interiority.

It is easy to be swept up in the sensationality of a composer like Bernstein, to be in admiration of his ability to create magnificence, and the film (and Cooper) is not immune to that. While Cooper can hold down the technical elements of a good film, his inability to bring the same control to the script does not go unnoticed. Maestro is a valiant attempt at a ‘biopic’, but falls short of being an enriching look at deeply creative lives.

Maestro is now available for streaming on Netflix

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