‘Maestro’ movie review: Carey Mulligan steals the show in Bradley Cooper’s flawed yet elegant drama

‘Maestro’ movie review: While Bradley Cooper can control the technical elements that make ‘Maestro’ good, his inability to control the storyline is noticeable.

'Maestro' movie review

What does it mean to examine the life of an artist? To step back and lay out their work, both amateur and seminal, to get a bird’s eye view of how they created, what motivated them, and what gratified them. It is a simple activity to copy but tough to perfect. Bradley Cooper takes an unusual approach to this task in Maestro, focusing on the interpersonal ties of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Cooper, who also plays Bernstein, focuses on Bernstein’s nearly three-decade marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).

Maestro, Cooper’s second directorial effort, is a dizzying ride that he masterfully controls. The film follows his relationship with Felicia from when they first met to her death from cancer in 1978, accompanied by Matthew Libatique’s visuals that appear to replicate the symphonic movements of Bernstein’s compositions. This period also coincided with Bernstein’s artistic zenith. Cooper’s screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, examines how these two elements of Bernstein’s life inspired and influenced one other. As the composer’s fame grew, so did his marital dissatisfaction. This is largely attributed to Bernstein’s multiple affairs, many of which were with men.

For those who are curious, Maestro is not a biography, or at least not a biopic in the classic sense that introduces the viewer to an artist’s work. Cooper’s script is eager to depart from the anticipated manner of chronicling Bernstein’s biggest hits, which is understandable, but he departs so far that even when the picture is brimming with Bernstein’s compositions, their absence in Cooper’s portrayal is noticeable.

For many, this will be their first encounter with Bernstein as a person. Many people would have undoubtedly heard Bernstein’s music without knowing who he was. However, the film would benefit from remembering that it was portraying not one, but two artists on screen. Montealegre, Felicia Bernstein was a theatrical and television actress who not only inspired but also collaborated with Bernstein on occasion. However, Maestro would not tell you much of this.

Carey Mulligan as Felicia was featured on early promotional material for the film. Felicia is portrayed with her back to the camera, smoking a cigarette and gazing out into the darkness. It sparked discussion regarding the importance Felicia’s involvement will have in a film about her husband. Perhaps it will be Felicia’s film after all! However, after more than two hours, you are persuaded that this was meant to be Felicia’s film; they just couldn’t find out how to make it so.

During their courting in the film, Leonard draws parallels between himself and Felicia, stating that they both work in jobs that require adaptability. “You need to take all the pieces, all the bits of you scattered across the varied landscapes and form and create the veritable person that stands before me now,” Cooper says to Felicia from Bernstein’s point of view. It was a mistake for the film not to continue with the various narrative components that Felicia had to give.

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Even though it is described as a love story rather than a biographical, the narrative is imbalanced. The way their connection engulfed their individual lives and the art, music, and performances they produced is a neglected theme. Bernstein discusses music as well as his wife. He is then shown passionately directing his works. Despite the fact that they all come from the same person, none of this feels connected.

Though Felicia’s role in motivating and working with the maestro is overshadowed, Mulligan’s performance as Felicia overshadows Cooper’s. She adds much-needed interiority to an otherwise surface-level role.

It’s easy to be caught up in the sensationalism of a composer like Bernstein, to admire his capacity to create splendour, and the film (and Cooper) are no exception. While Cooper can handle the technical aspects of a fine film, his inability to control the narrative does not go unnoticed. Maestro is a brave attempt at a ‘biopic,’ but it falls short of providing an enlightening glimpse at extremely creative lives.

Maestro is now available for streaming on Netflix


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