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Maestro (Netflix) Film Review

Carey Mulligan leans on Bradley Cooper in the film Maestro

Bradley Cooper’s second directorial effort, Maestro, is a bold and stylish, if somewhat schmaltzy, portrait of the relationship and music that made up Leonard Berstein.

For his second feature film, Bradley Cooper is finding his feet and some bold ideas in the director’s chair. Maestro, a semi-biopic about famed American conductor, composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein has more flare, style and ambition than 2018’s A Star Is Born, even if it plays relatively safe with the narrative structure and becomes a little schmaltzy at times.

When Leonard meets actress Felicia (Carey Mulligan), it’s love at first sight. Fresh off the high of conducting the Philadelphia philharmonic orchestra for the first time, their meeting is an abundance of wit, spark and secret sharing. But while their careers take off and they have three children together, their marriage isn’t all plain sailing. Leonard’s propensity for affairs and his lack of subtlety are a drain on Felicity, who dims under his almost overwhelming presence.

It feels like a really smart move for Cooper, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Stringer, to focus on Berstein’s relationships and his music, rather than frame Maestro as a traditional biopic. Because those feel like the most fundamental parts of him, as he all but admits to himself. He loves people and he loves music, and so by framing the film as an exploration of those two things and their interconnectedness, it feels like Cooper really gives his audience the best sense of the man.

Yes, it’s a little sentimental, but it also doesn’t shy away from the fact that his presence could be overwhelming and that he certainly was not a faithful man. He’s louche, almost needy, and striving for a constant supply of people or connections to thrive. He doesn’t do well alone, ironic given that composing is often a solo occupation, and Felicia’s belief in their marriage dwindles as his affairs become more and more blatant. She describes her life as being like standing ‘under a bird full of sh*t’, and it’s a moment that feels apt and also gets one of the biggest laughs of a film that isn’t afraid to lighten the mood.

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(L to R) Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. (Netflix © 2023.)

It is, in fact, directed like one might conduct a piece of music, ebbing and flowing as the need arises. Cooper feels more confident here, more willing to take risks and fit the film’s composition around the emotion any scene needs. It’s preppy and fun at times, but can also be more focused and serious too, even if Cooper does have a tendency to simply plonk the camera down in front of someone and have them perform to it.

And the conducting is when his Berstein feels most alive, where you get the sense that the roiling storm within him can finally be released upon the podium. Cooper feels like a force in the role, commanding the screen and chewing at the scenery. It feels like he takes up almost the all the air in a room, and everyone else is left scrabbling to keep up with him as he fires off dialogue and centres himself. But Mulligan keeps up with him, her clipped accent and stoicism giving way to genuine moments of emotion that really work. Their relationship feels like something all consuming, with ups and downs like one of Bernstein’s compositions, and they are really engaging as a pair.

The supporting cast is rounded out with the likes of Sarah Silverman, Maya Hawke and Matt Bomer, who give decent performances, but – by no fault of their own – are often left in the shadow of Mulligan and Cooper.

And now feels like a good time to address the elephant in the room: the prosthetic nose. It is not nearly as noticeable as the media furor may have had you believe, and in fact, the aging makeup throughout the entire film is very impressive. Cooper himself is almost unrecognisable during the film’s opening sequence, as an elderly Bernstein plays lazily at a piano.

And while this scene opens the film in colour, it soon flashes back in time and switches to black and white. It stays like this predominantly for the early stages of Bernstein’s career, his relationship with Felicia and the beginnings of their marriage, before making a return to vivid colour, ironically, when things take a downward turn. Leonard and Felicia’s marriage has lost its spark and vivacity, they barely communicate, and Leonard drowns himself in work, younger men and the attentions of his party guests while Felicia carries her own career and raises the children. It works well as a filmic device, making the beginning section feel like a memory or a dream. The call backs to specific moments, like Leonard and Felicia sitting in the grass trying to guess a number, feel nostalgic and carry the emotional weight of their partnership, especially as the film reaches its poignant ending.

Maestro, unsurprisingly, is scored beautifully. Those familiar with Bernstein’s work might find special significance in certain moments, but even for the uninitiated it’s still really effective. It has depth and power when it needs to, when Leonard is performing and we’re treated to almost entire musical sequences, but also knows when to soften and highlight performance and emotion.

It feels like Cooper has found his feet as a director and is willing to go bold, which seems fitting for a man like Bernstein. Maestro does lean in to the schmaltz a little, particular in the later familial scenes, but it also isn’t concerned with covering up the fact that he was an imperfect husband, serial cheater and sometimes a careless father. It’s an imperfect film for an imperfect man, but feels like it has the style and pizzaz he would have enjoyed.

Maestro (Netflix)

Maestro premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2023, and will be released in select theaters in November and globally on Netflix on December 20. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and discover the 2023 Venice Immersive Lineup!

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