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Released 2023. Director: Bradley Cooper

REGARDED AS THE FIRST GREAT AMERICAN CONDUCTOR, Leonard Bernstein has also been described as a once-in-a-century talent. As you’ll see in the exuberant and flamboyant introduction in Maestro, 25-year-old Bernstein was called at the last minute to step in when the guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic had fallen ill. Without rehearsal, the untested assistant conductor took the baton and his debut performance astounded the audiences and set ablaze the start of an illustrious career.

Bernstein was more than an orchestra conductor. He composed symphonies, operas, ballets and musicals. He was also a teacher and a TV personality and a family man with a complicated personal life. It is this last aspect that Maestro places the most emphasis on.

Following the critical acclaim of A Star is Born (2018), Maestro is Bradley Cooper’s return to a music-oriented, character-driven romance of a creative partnership whose happiness is clipped by private anguish. The movie condenses Bernstein’s sterling career and complex life into a classy presentation seen through the prism of the marriage of Bernstein and Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre.

Cooper frames the genesis of their romance like a fairy tale. As if by magic, this beautiful woman walks in from the night into his life. Filmed elegantly in monochrome, the scenes of their early years have a purity and simplicity in its perception of the couple’s attraction and attachment to each other. Cooper and Carey Mulligan practically shimmer and glow in old Hollywood aesthetics in their scenes together. They love the same things, they finish each other’s sentences. Laughter and mutual adoration underscore this period in their lives.

The change from black-and-white to colour suggests that there are now shades to what we see, as cracks begin to show in their relationship years later. Felicia has turned a blind eye to Leonard’s dalliances with men before but his flirtations are becoming more brazen. Though heartbroken, Felicia tolerates her husband's infidelities, asking only for discretion. In one instance she chides her husband, “you’re getting sloppy.” The couple eventually separate until Leonard returns to Felicia when she’s diagnosed with terminal illness and cares for her until the very end.

The duality in his private life is mirrored in his approach to music. The tension and balance between conductor Bernstein and composer Bernstein has its roots in the man’s personality. Gregarious and extroverted by nature, Leonard hates being alone but composing is a solitary and contemplative pursuit whereas conducting allows him to flourish among musicians and appeals to his passion in teaching and nurturing.

Cooper brings a certain flair and visual style to his directing. His collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique is confident in utilising different aspect ratios and colour palette to add tone and texture to his narrative. While he places the audience close to the characters in many scenes, bringing us into their fold like friends at one of their parties, in two key scenes when Leonard and Felicia are having an honest conversation and arguing about their future, the camera is distant and unmoving, the blocking of the scene and the lighting is such that we don’t have a clear view of their faces and their expressions and rely more on their voices to feel their emotions.

It’s also incredibly audacious of Cooper to film himself as Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a show-stopping scene lasting nearly seven minutes. Magnificently shot with minimal cut, the camera glides barely above the orchestra to capture the sweaty and exhilarated conductor’s heart-thumping passion in a fluid, immersive experience of grand, soaring symphony, cinema-style. 

Cooper is amazing in portraying Leonard. Besides the uncanny physical resemblance, the actor builds a character so large and embracing he sweeps you into his circle to bask in his generosity. When you think about how he played the rock star in A Star is Born you’ll realise how Cooper has modulated his voice in Maestro so distinctly that he sounds like a different man altogether. Leonard also sounds different from his younger days to old age, rumbly from decades of chain smoking. I know some of this could be a result of audio engineering but it’s still impressive.

While in reality Leonard is undoubtedly the star that captures everyone’s attention, Felicia is not a woman in the shadows and Carey Mulligan’s performance makes sure of that. As we watch their story unfold through the years and decades, the movie asks us to consider their relationship from her perspective. You could say Felicia carries a greater proportion of emotional weight of the movie. The character of a patient, forgiving, saintlike wife suffering alone as she maintains a placid façade is fodder for melodrama if not for Mulligan’s astute performance that keeps the mush at bay. The question still arises on what it means to remain faithful and accepting to allow your spouse to be who he is.

As the strength of their marriage rises, fades and rises again like the arrangement in a symphony, Felicia is really the maestro of their lifelong union, an idea that couldn’t be made any clearer at the end. Just before the screen fades to credits we see a lingering image of Felicia accompanied by the movie title. As a celebration of the love story between the conductor supremo and his one true love, all his career achievements seem to point to one constant – the maestro’s wife.

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1 Comment

Jan 17

I have to wholeheartedly agree that that long superbly cinematic shot just hovering above the heads of the orchestra, was outstandingly shot and edited with just the merest hint of the odd very appropriately placed cutaway. To me it was the cinematic heart and soul shot of this movie.

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