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NYFF Review: Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is a Fitting Tribute to the Great Leonard Bernstein

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Bradley Cooper in Maestro (Netflix)

It couldn’t make any more sense for Maestro – Bradley Cooper’s portrait of master conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his follow-up to the Oscar-winning A Star is Born – to make its North American debut at Film at Lincoln Center as part of its 61st New York Film Festival. Its premiere took place inside the very venue where Bernstein’s work received its biggest acclaim.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Bernstein’s life and career, it’s impossible not to get swept up from the way his story is told, in part using a storytelling technique that keeps things moving at a fairly brisk pace from the moment we meet Cooper’s Bernstein later in life – unrecognizable under the carefully crafted prosthetics of two-time Oscar winner Makeup Designer Kazu Hiro – as he’s being interviewed on television. He ruminates on missing his dead wife, who we meet as the film flashes back many decades to early in his career, as he meets Carey Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean-born actress, at a wild New York party filled with Broadway types. They immediately hit it off, as the two are chattering non-stop, finding instant chemistry. As is the case with most interesting biodramas, nothing goes smoothly for Bernstein, even while becoming the world’s most renowned conductor, as he contends with drugs and marital issues, adding to the drama.

Co-written by Cooper with Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight), the execution of telling Bernstein’s story immediately feels different due to the lightning-quick rapport between Lenny and Felicia, which gives Maestro a lively energy. 

Bradley Cooper in Maestro (Netflix)

Maestro does a particularly commendable job dealing with the conductor’s sexuality, subtly at first and then more directly as the film goes along and Felicia realizes her husband’s amorous attraction towards good-looking younger men has gone unhindered by their marriage. Eventually, Bernstein’s eldest daughter Jamie –  Maya Hawke in a small but terrific supporting turn – confronts her father on the rumors about his sexuality in a particularly emotional scene between Cooper and Hawke. He lies to her face. 

Kazu Hiro’s own masterful work is fully on display in the way it allows Cooper and Mulligan to age gracefully over the course of the film. The way Matthew Libatique’s camera rests lovingly on Mulligan’s face for long monologues acts as another testament to Hiro’s work as a true makeup artiste.

The work of Production Designer Kevin Thompson is similarly on display from the opening sequence in which we follow Bernstein from his artists’ residence above Carnegie Hall into the great concert venue itself, often recreating real concert halls and locations. Costume Designer Mark Bridges – another two-time Oscar winner for The Artist and Phantom Thread – goes for the authenticity necessary for any period piece, ably handling the couple’s formal and leisure outfits alike.

Carey Mulligan in Maestro (Netflix)

As expected, music plays such a large part in this movie that additional credit must be given to production sound mixer Steve Morrow for placing the performances in the proper space to make you feel as if you’re physically there. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Music Director for the Metropolitan Opera, acted as Cooper’s conducting consultant, the actor’s dedication to recreating Bernstein’s distinctive style the most evident in a performance of Medea. It’s a scene that clinches Cooper’s path towards another Oscar nomination. 

Maestro’s third act follows Felicia’s fight with lung cancer, and it’s the portion of the movie that is truly heartbreaking after you watch the ups and downs of this marriage for such an extended amount of time. This last act clinches Mulligan’s growth and maturity as an actor since her 2009 breakout role in An Education, while also doing something unlike anything we’ve seen from her.

Carey Mulligan, Cooper in Maestro (Netflix)

A few minor gripes one might have is the decision of Cooper to use black and white in the flashbacks, something that’s being far overdone this between Oppenheimer and Yorgos Lanthimos’ upcoming Poor Things. Some might get confused by the passage of time, since this is another biopic that chooses not to list or mention dates of any kind, just making its way through unconnected moments in Bernstein’s life. West Side Story is barely touched upon, as Maestro isn’t just trying to tick boxes from Bernstein’s Wikipedia page, but it really get into his home life and personality, which would be much harder to parse from just watching Bernstein conduct or listening to the recordings.

However, little detracts from Maestro from being a true revelation, not just for Cooper as a filmmaker, but also as an actor, allowing you to completely lose yourself in the pretense that you’re actually watching Bernstein at different points in his life. It would not be surprising if Maestro ends up connecting with Academy voters similarly to the way it’s connected with festival goers over the past month. Maestro is Cooper’s masterwork, elevating him both as a filmmaker and as an actor, to a new stratosphere.

Rating: A

Maestro just had its North American premiere at the 61st New York Film Festival. It will receive a limited theatrical release on Nov. 22 and then stream via Netflix on Dec. 20.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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