When Bradley Cooper made yet another iteration of “A Star Is Born” in 2018, more than a few skeptics smelled a dilettante – a typical pretty-boy actor with clichéd, “ultimately I want to direct” aspirations. Cooper dispelled those reservations immediately in that movie, with an exciting, utterly authentic set piece at a rock concert, in which he not only believably played a burned-out star, but staged and sequenced the scene with urgency and grit.
With “Maestro,” Cooper gets things going with similar electric verve, proving not only that he’s no dilettante, but he’s no one-hit wonder, either. In this lively, sometimes deliriously scattershot biopic about the conductor Leonard Bernstein, Cooper doesn’t educate the audience by way of a dutiful Wiki-ography as much as tell us what he thinks matters most about Bernstein’s life: in this case, his relationship with his wife, Felicia, the bisexuality he largely hid, his compulsive curiosity about people and the ecstatic bursts of creativity that sustained him. Viewers hoping to enjoy a visual index of Lenny’s greatest hits might need to manage their expectations, although there are wonderful re-creations of some of his most beloved performances. Instead, “Maestro” is a movie of moments, all of which accrue into a vivid, if incomplete, whole.
All of those values come to bear on “Maestro’s” exquisite opening chapter, a balletic, kaleidoscopic representation of Bernstein’s meteoric rise, which started in 1943, when he was called at the last minute to conduct the New York Philharmonic after Bruno Walter fell ill. Deftly moving Bernstein – played by Cooper with an uncanny physical resemblance to his subject – from the bed he shares with clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) to the aisles of Carnegie Hall, Cooper does a dazzling job of compressing time and space, not only economizing on narrative fat, but capturing the headlong zeal with which Bernstein savored art, ambition and life.
Cooper, working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique to signal time periods with shifting frames and moving from black-and-white to color, evinces similar skill in later scenes, when Bernstein meets the actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) and the two embark on an epic affair. The contradictions of a gay man falling in genuine love with a woman – while retaining his attraction to men – are captured in a lovely passage using Bernstein’s score for the ballet “Fancy Free” (which would morph into the Broadway musical “On the Town”), turning the dance into a metaphorical pas de deux. (Or is it trois?)
These are the grace notes that make “Maestro” not just prose, but poetry; if some audiences might miss the more workmanlike details of Bernstein’s career, they would be missing what turns out to be a piece of exhilarating, inspired visual storytelling as well as a profound portrait of a marriage. Lenny is the free-spirited, wildly charismatic star of his and Felicia’s lives, but it’s Felicia who grounds him, and the movie: Mulligan’s portrayal of this paragon of cosmopolitan elegance is restrained, tasteful, and quietly crackling with repressed anger and confusion. When tensions in their relationship reach their apotheosis, Cooper stages the showdown in their bedroom at the Dakota apartment building while the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade tootles by outside. Just as Felicia is hurling the most hurtful, damaging things she can say – warning her husband that if he isn’t careful, he’ll end up “a lonely old queen” – a giant inflatable Snoopy floats by the window, a sad, whimsically surreal rebuke.
“Maestro,” which Cooper co-wrote with Josh Singer, is full of such vivid moments, many of them featuring a superlative cast of supporting players: Sarah Silverman plays Bernstein’s matter-of-fact sister, Shirley, with snappy mid-century flair; Maya Hawke plays Bernstein’s eldest daughter, Jamie, with wary sensitivity; Bomer, whose character, like Bernstein, winds up getting married, infuses his brief scenes with impressive pathos. (Another great scene: when Bernstein bumps into Oppenheim and his wife and baby in Central Park and happily tells the infant, “I slept with both your parents!”)
Although Cooper doesn’t depict Bernstein as a tortured soul (he’s far too self-involved for that), he’s attuned to the costs of reconciling the truth of one’s deepest desires with the equally powerful pull of love, loyalty and trust. Is Felicia an avatar of classic denial or wifely duty? Neither. She’s trying to accept the man she loves for who he is, while trying to make it all fit into society’s most oppressive and pointless expectations. “Maestro” doesn’t have a happy ending – how could it? – but its honesty and tenderness are inescapable.
Happily for music fans, there are riches to be found in “Maestro” beyond its drama of the heart, chiefly an astonishing re-enactment of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973. It’s a stirring moment – muscular, lyrical, theatrical and subtle all at the same time. It’s also one more fractal within a movie that bursts with moments of clarity about a man who, despite Cooper’s all-in performance, somehow remains an enigma. That’s probably as it should be. “Maestro” isn’t a Great Man tale – if anything, it’s an ode to a Great Woman. Instead, it’s something deeper, messier and more unresolved. It’s a love story as unruly, passionate and expansive as the flawed and fascinating people at its center. Bravi.