Long before Bradley Cooper got behind the camera, he was in front of it. His performances over the years in films such as Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper have garnered him four Oscar nominations in the acting categories. Ever since his 2018 directorial debut, a modernization of A Star Is Born starring himself and Lady Gaga, which also earned loads of critical acclaim and praise, people have been patiently waiting for his sophomore feature. In the last decade, the biopic genre has risen to heightened prominence as notable historical figures have given actors the chance to fully submerge themselves in a project. Now, five years later, Cooper takes on the role of iconic composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, a soon-to-be Netflix original release he also directed and co-wrote alongside First Man and Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer.
Leonard Bernstein made his New York Philharmonic orchestra conducting debut at 25 years of age in 1943. From that moment, the trajectory of his career changed forever. He defied genre and medium expectations as a composer, creating music most notably for the renowned Broadway musical West Side Story and even scoring motion pictures like the Marlon Brando-led crime drama On the Waterfront. In Maestro, Bradley Cooper plays Bernstein over the span of multiple decades. At a party early on in the movie, Bernstein is introduced to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a budding actress who recently made her Broadway debut. Their infatuation with each other is instant, yet love is never so simple. While their individual careers are touched upon, it’s the trials and tribulations of their lifelong relationship and family life that lie at the very core of this narrative.
Bradley Cooper displays formidable directorial skills in Maestro, but perhaps not as assured as they have been felt before. It is hard to determine whether the fact that Leonard and Felicia spend the majority of the time talking over each other is an adverse decision that was made in the script or direction. This technique works well in the context of their intense young love at the film’s beginning but then becomes a distraction from the dialogue at hand as the plot trails on.
Both the story and direction prosper in its quieter moments that revolve around the effect that Leonard’s need for love and adoration from a wide range of people, including secret gay lovers, has on his partner and family. However, it can feel like at times Maestro stays at a surface level with its characters, tiptoeing around the nuances. The moments that do dare to dive into the complexities of persevering love are rather moving though.
In terms of technical achievements, the most inspired filmmaking choices are actually made within the first fifteen minutes of Maestro. With the help of Black Swan and A Star Is Born cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Bradley Cooper draws the viewer into the theatre before an invigorating orchestral performance through a series of continuous bird’s eye sequences as Berstien prepares backstage. Unfortunately, nothing is as interesting or exciting with the camera from that point onward. It feels as though the bar is set misleadingly high, never to be reached again.
When the first stills and looks at Maestro were released, discourse around the use of prosthetics, specifically revolving around Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose, ran wild. Shortly after, all three of Bernstein’s children released a joint statement defending the decision, and rightly so. The prosthetics that are used to structurally alter Cooper’s face as well as gradually age him are done extremely well and look natural in Maestro. With the exception of the penultimate scene wherein the makeup appears slightly puffy, Cooper’s resemblance to Bernstein himself can be quite uncanny at times.
The performances throughout Maestro are very much dependable. Bradley Cooper is no stranger to unleashing his charm on screen and this mighty role provides him yet another opportunity to do so. Both he and Carey Mulligan can feel ever so slightly over the top with their line deliveries and speech in the first act before it is slowly dialed down to a more natural level. As Felicia’s health declines towards the end of the film, her relationship with Leonard finds newfound strength, making Carey Mulligan’s beautifully heartbreaking performance in the final act all the more painful to watch. Aside from the main two characters is the couple’s eldest daughter Jamie, played by Maya Hawke, who manages to forge a new dynamic that injects an elevated sense of tension into the plot.
No matter the verdict, it is hard to deny that star and director Bradley Cooper exudes passion for this fearless love story, which is half the battle. These creative efforts can be felt consistently throughout Maestro, however, some elements aren’t quite refined enough to see this picture elevated to the standard of powerful and innovative biographical films that have thrived in the past decade. The respective performances from Cooper and Carey Mulligan as Leonard and Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein undoubtedly radiate from the screen. Their shared chemistry grows stronger as the movie draws towards a conclusion, solidifying Maestro as a love letter to the famed Bernstein duo. Cooper’s second feature is absolutely worth a watch, it just never quite reaches its full potential as this sweeping biopic of masterful proportions.