“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” Leonard Bernstein’s quote given at a lecture at Harvard University in 1976 opens Bradley Cooper’s sophomore film, Maestro. And, just like his first feature A Star Is Born, Maestro lives up to this promise. Both films are messy, complicated, imperfect, occasionally transcendent but nonetheless fascinating works that reveal the artistic obsession buried within their director.
Cooper, now firmly on his way to a Clint Eastwood or Warren Beatty–esque actor–director career, chose to take the biggest swing he possibly could after the success of A Star is Born. Recognizing the unique position he’s in at a time when Hollywood is crumbling around him, Cooper made sure to pack Maestro full of ideas. Those include, but are not limited to: personal cost of creating “great” art, America’s attitudes towards homosexuality and bisexuality in the 20th century, how the art one produces changes as they become more famous, the music world’s inherent anti–semitism, and how the process of aging affects both personal relationships and art creation. Instead of another “great man” biopic in the vein of Lincoln, Gandhi, or Ray, Maestro is deeply complex and at times antagonistic.
The key choice that Cooper and co–writer Josh Singer make is to focus the story largely on Bernstein’s relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, played astonishingly by Carey Mulligan. Recognizing many audience members already know Bernstein as a music genius, Cooper decides to turn to his relationship to expose the inherent contradictions of his life: Bernstein was a gay man yet deeply loved his wife and had three kids with her; he loved his family yet consistently ignored them to pursue affairs and focus on music; he has composed masterful pieces of music, yet struggled deeply with and usually hated his own work.
The film begins in 1943, with Bernstein about to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic. The first thirty minutes, shot in black–and–white and lit to mimic Cooper’s favorite old Hollywood films, are full of filmmaking virtuosity and flourish. The opening sequence, for example, features an awe–inspiring camera move that opens with Bernstein and a man he’s with in bed, then rises up into a bird's–eye view to follow him down through the theater he’s about to perform at, then swooshes back to settle on Bernstein again.
The rest of the opening act of the film shows how Bernstein and Montealegre meet and begin their relationship. In some ways, this section is reminiscent of the opening act of A Star is Born that also stunningly shows the beginning of a core romantic relationship. Cooper has a way of portraying romance and intimacy on screen. In A Star is Born, it’s the bar scene where Cooper’s Jackson Maine first encounters Lady Gaga’s Ally. In Maestro, it’s an extended party sequence that leads to Bernstein and Montealegre acting out a portion of a play in which Montealegre’s been cast in an empty theater. Both of these sequences feature moments of acute observation of romance: Jackson Maine asking to touch Ally’s nose, or Montealegre jokingly critiquing Bernstein’s line readings, and many more. In a time when sex scenes have become a hotly debated topic, Cooper is better than anyone at selling attraction and romance.
Just as Cooper promised, the first act of Maestro is already elaborating on the idea of contradiction. While mimicking old Hollywood films, the section is also the most audacious and fast–paced. Its quick cutting, which feels eminently modern and at odds with the black–and–white stylization, never lets you take a moment to catch your breath and eventually culminates in an extended dance sequence in which Bernstein professes his love for Montealegre. Cooper, paying tribute to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, beautifully performs a dance number that would be the centerpiece in a normal movie.
The fast–paced, borderline–chaotic opening ultimately gives way to a more controlled and restrained story that echoes the way Bernstein’s wild, youthful energy eventually gave way to a more considered old man. We get to see how Bernstein and Montealegre’s relationship develops over their many years together, marked by childbirths and numerous affairs. In many ways, Maestro follows the same structure of A Star is Born, taking an explosive opening act and allowing it to recede into subtle second and third acts. The difference is that Cooper has improved as a filmmaker in the past five years. His tonal control is on full display as we see Bernstein and Montealegre struggle through their relationship.
The middle hour of Maestro hones in on what has become Cooper’s central focus as a director: fame and how it can warp and distort people. Both Maestro and A Star is Born explore how people change as they become famous. And it makes sense that Cooper has identified this as his core interest as a filmmaker, dating back to his time asking famous actors questions on Inside the Actor’s Studio. We also begin to see Bernstein most overtly struggling with his art. And while such struggle could fall into the typical artist biopic tropes, what makes this iteration unique is that his struggle has less to do with Bernstein writing and composing his music and more to do with his fame and stature's effect on his identity and family.
Throughout the film, Bernstein’s artistic talent is never in question. In an early black–and–white scene, Bernstein’s father proudly declares that Bernstein can be “America’s first great composer.” It is these standards that we see Bernstein constantly holding himself to for the rest of the film. In one of the film's best scenes, Bernstein has a candid conversation with John Gruen (played marvelously by Josh Hamilton), an art critic and historian. Bernstein laments that, according to himself, he has never made a truly great piece of art. This again refers back to Bernstein’s key contradictions: while widely celebrated as the preeminent musical voice of the 20th century, Bernstein considers himself a failure.
The final act of Maestro truly cements it as one of the year's best films. We see Bernstein and Montealegre’s relationship finally reach a breaking point during an exhilarating sequence set against the backdrop of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. After years of knowing about but ignoring Bernstein’s affairs, Montealegre has finally had enough. The couple separates, leaving the family and the children in disarray. This leads to a period of transition for both the film and its characters. Up until this point, we have essentially only seen Montealegre in scenes with Bernstein. Now we see what her life on her own looks like, and, predictably, it's awkward and a little bit scary. It's also a transition for the Bernstein children, who now have to deal with the rumors that go along with the high–profile separation of their parents. And finally, we see Bernstein in both a state of freedom of finally being himself out in the open and a state of profound sadness. In this section we also see Bernstein beginning to abuse drugs and alcohol.
This period of transition and awkwardness eventually leads to the best sequence of the film, a sequence so exhilarating, bombastic, and emotionally fulfilling that it reminds us why we watch movies. Serving as the emotional centerpiece of the entire film, the sequence shows Cooper conducting the orchestra with a level of commitment and passion that puts him among the greats. The editing, sound design, and cinematography are impeccable, yet what truly makes it the best is the culmination of all of the emotional arcs. We see Bernstein finally satisfied with himself and his art, while Montealegre watches from backstage. At the end of the performance, Bernstein walks over and embraces Montealegre, signaling to the audience that despite the tumult within their relationship, there will always be some sort of love between these life partners.
And that love gets tested almost immediately when Montealegre is diagnosed with breast cancer. What ensues is potentially the most heartbreaking depiction of both someone going through cancer treatment and their loved ones attempting to make things feel normal for them. As someone whose mother went through treatment for breast cancer, this segment hit me incredibly hard. Specifically, there are a pair of scenes that will most likely be used as Mulligan and Cooper’s Oscar clips that are truly shattering: Montealegre attempting to talk to some old friends in the middle of chemo, and Bernstein’s private reaction in watching Montealegre’s health deteriorate.
Eventually, Montealegre passes away from her illness. In one final artistic flourish, Cooper films this scene as a oner showing Bernstein realizing what has happened and walking out into the family’s yard. The movie doesn't logically end here, however; instead, we briefly see Bernstein’s life after the death in two contrasting sequences: on one hand, he speaks in an interview about how much he loved Montealegre; on another, we see Bernstein seduce one of his male students. Then, after one final image of Felicia Montealegre, Maestro ends, leaving us to digest the glaring contradictions of Leonard Bernstein and fulfilling the promise Bradley Cooper made to us at the beginning of the film.
Maestro will be screened in limited theaters on November 22nd and will be released on Netflix December 20th.