Leonard Bernstein, a composer and conductor portrayed by Bradley Cooper with great energy and enthusiasm, was a complex man with conflicting traits. In his second film as a director, following A Star Is Born, Cooper focuses on the constant internal battle within Bernstein’s psyche in this biopic. With heightened ambition and flair, Cooper directs with the same passion and showmanship as Bernstein in his most intense moments. While this style may be overwhelming and showy for some, there is much to appreciate, especially Carey Mulligan’s outstanding performance as Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre, and the powerful music that permeates the drama.
Maestro has a nonlinear structure that resembles a scrapbook of life moments, showcasing both career achievements and domestic tension. Despite this, Cooper maintains a lively and dynamic energy throughout. This effectively captures the restless essence of Bernstein in the storytelling. However, the main focus of the film is on the conflicting dualities within this complex man. Cooper cleverly portrays this through the contrast between black-and-white and vibrant color scenes, as well as the tight, confined aspect ratio in early scenes compared to the open possibilities in later life. The framing also highlights the juxtaposition of Leonard and Felicia’s presence in the same room, yet their separation in their respective worlds.
Bernstein’s duality is most apparent in his sexual preferences. It is clear that he has a deep love for his wife, as shown in one of the early scenes where he openly shares his grief over her passing during a television interview. However, he also expresses attraction towards and actively pursues numerous young men, including his close and meaningful relationship with clarinetist David Oppenheim (played by Matt Bomer).
In other areas, there is a discrepancy in his professional image, a struggle between his role as a conductor – a performer who puts on a big show and gives his all to the orchestra and audience, reveling in their admiration – and his quieter life as a composer, isolated from the outside world. According to the film, Bernstein also experiences emotional extremes. He can be consumed by ecstatic joy or crippling despair, and is depicted as both effortlessly charismatic and sociable in public, and guarded and reserved in private.
Felicia is caught in the midst of a turbulent emotional situation. Describing her as simply a victim of her husband’s inner turmoil would be inaccurate. Mulligan’s portrayal of Felicia shows her to be an active participant in the story, sharing the spotlight with Leonard. However, this does not mean she escapes unharmed from their tumultuous marriage that spanned over 25 years.
In a brief yet poignant moment, their relationship is revealed as complex through a single shot. The husband and wife are overlaid in the same frame, with Leonard’s figure taking up most of the space as a large, dark silhouette. Meanwhile, Felicia stands out as a smaller, bright figure in her white cocktail dress, resembling a shining star in the center of the frame. This image could be interpreted as Felicia existing in her husband’s shadow, but it could also suggest that she is the guiding light that steers him away from his destructive tendencies.
However, the music may have been the greatest love of Leonard Bernstein, aside from himself. Cooper employs a clever editing technique, reminiscent of Olivier Dahan’s film La Vie en Rose about Édith Piaf, to blur the boundaries between domestic life and the stage. A scene of rehearsals for the ballet that would eventually become the movie On the Town transforms into a dreamlike sequence in which Leonard and Felicia dance together. The most impactful use of music occurs during an extended sequence in which Bernstein conducts Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 2 with a passionate fervor. It is as if he has been touched by a divine force. As he catches sight of Felicia, who is distant from him at this point but enthralled by his passion, their differences fade away. For both of them, the music is everything.
The film Maestro is currently showing in specific theaters and will be available to stream on Netflix starting on 20 December.