Leonard Bernstein biopic ‘Maestro’ tells a complex story of love and art

maestro review

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan co-star as Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia in “Maestro.”

“There never was a good biography of a good novelist,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once claimed. “There couldn’t be. He’s too many people if he’s any good.”

There have been some exceptions to that rule since Fitzgerald wrote it in one of his notebooks, almost a century ago. I know I read with pleasure Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene, and Richard Ellmann’s books on James Joyce and Oscar Wilde remain essential.

But it’s certainly difficult capturing all of an author in a single book, and when it comes to portraying any artist in a movie, it grows nearly impossible. How do you sum up someone in two hours?

Bradley Cooper — directing “Maestro,” now in theaters — doesn’t even try. Which is why the film succeeds.

Bradley Cooper in “Maestro.”

Its subject, Leonard Bernstein, was a man of many parts — conductor, teacher, Broadway composer, “serious” musician. A man of many passions, too: A loving husband to his wife of many years, he also was a happily active gay man. (At one point in the film, introduced to a couple’s new baby, he slyly informs the infant he’s slept with both her parents.)

So how do you get all of that onscreen, along with everything else? What, for example, was Bernstein’s childhood like? What were the formative influences on his life? We get some hints later on, as the musician — played by Cooper as well — alludes to a difficult relationship with his strict, businessman father. But that’s it.

And that’s because, rather than starting with Bernstein’s birth as a man, Cooper starts with his birth as an artist, and concentrates not on his motivations but his passion.

Like almost everything in Bernstein’s life, his debut with New York’s Philharmonic Orchestra was full of drama — and luck. The budding maestro was only 25 at the time; he was pressed into service only at the last minute, when the esteemed conductor Bruno Walter came down the flu.

The concert, featuring selections from Wagner and Strauss, had already been scheduled to be broadcast live. The next morning, Bernstein woke up famous.

He was hailed as the first great American-born conductor, and his career would only expand over the next two years as his collaborations with choreographer Jerome Robbins — first the ballet “Fancy Free” and then its musical-comedy version, “On the Town” — opened and were smash hits. The next decade — conducting orchestras from Tanglewood to Tel Aviv, composing operas and film scores and “West Side Story” — saw his fame grow into legend.

How do you capture the pell-mell excitement of that? Frankly, Cooper the actor is a little unsure, overemphasizing the young man’s manic energy — at times, his eyes wide, he almost seems to be on cocaine. (Bernstein was, eventually, but that came much later, in the aging icon’s party-hearty disco years.) Cooper’s performance gets the adrenaline rush of genius, but not the questioning, the self-criticism, and the endless hard work that turns enthusiasm into art.

Cooper the director, however, is on far firmer ground. How does he capture the pace of those years, visually, with new opportunities piling up like bumper cars? He continually breaks the fourth wall, having Bernstein walk — or more often, run — from one scene directly into another. How does he picture the absolute primacy of art in Bernstein’s life? By turning his life into art, transforming his courtship of his wife into a ballet.

Carey Mulligan in “Maestro.”

Carey Mulligan plays Bernstein’s spouse, Felicia Montealegre, and she’s the beating heart of the picture. There was early criticism of casting Mulligan as a Latina from Chile (although, in fact, Montealegre, who used her mother’s name, had a Jewish-American father with Prussian roots). But Mulligan gets two very important things right: The unbreakable, unbearable, impossible love Montealegre had for this man, and her growing anger with herself for having always known he would never love her quite as much – and still lying to herself that it wouldn’t really matter.

Their relationship — which lasted until her death, and grew to include a fabulous New York apartment, a country home in Connecticut and three adored children — comprises much of the picture, and it’s detailed and defined by small, wonderful moments. Her increasingly suspicious search for him when he disappears at one of their parties (a young man, it seems, has caught his eye). His passionate embrace of her when, at the end of a performance, he sees she’s slipped into the audience.

There are other just-right touches, like the changing, contrasting family dynamics — a blow-up at a Thanksgiving feast (while the balloons from the Macy’s parade float by their apartment windows), a cozy country weekend with pet dogs and inside jokes and warm connections. And nice little accents, like the surprise appearance of Sarah Silverman as Bernstein’s cooly composed sister Shirley, who has always seen him as the brilliant but incurable narcissist he is.

Carey Mulligan and Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro.”

Cooper’s focus on Bernstein’s confident brilliance is his answer to Fitzgerald’s claim that you can’t do a decent biography of an artist, who by definition contains multitudes. Yes, Bernstein was “too many people,” too. But in concentrating on Bernstein as a manic genius, “Maestro” also gives us Bernstein the lover — even if his passions tend to center on, first, his art, and then himself, and finally his wife.

Because this is also, ultimately, a love story — no matter how frequently frustrating and inherently unequal that love is.

As a result, some other things get left by the wayside. We see the satisfaction Bernstein gets from composing, and the physical rush he feels from conducting — but less of him actually doing either. The artistic earthquake that “West Side Story” caused isn’t even alluded to. And the couple’s famously left-wing politics — mercilessly mocked in Tom Wolfe’s article “Radical Chic” — remain offscreen, as the couple’s own personal struggles take center stage.

But again, this is a story about them — even if Lenny always thought it was all about him. Which, of course, he would. After all, he was the conductor.


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