Maestro is the movie of the year. Amendment: not to slight the amazing Oppenheimer, make that one of the two best films of the year. But Bradley Cooper’s warts-and-all biopic about volatile conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein has more passion, tenderness and heartbreaking resonance—and it’s a lot more fun.
MAESTRO ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Cooper, already revered as an actor of extraordinary skill, is fast becoming one of our best contemporary film directors. His recent take on A Star Is Born extracted a career-changing performance from Lady Gaga (not even in the same league with George Cukor’s definitive 1954 version starring Judy Garland, but impressive). Now, he shows massive improvement in every creative department—acting, screenwriting, cinematography, editing, scoring—to create not only the celebration of a great man but a great tribute to filmmaking itself.
Maestro is the closest thing to perfection I’ve seen on the screen in a very long time. Despite the prosthetic nose he designed for himself to look more like Bernstein that raised the hackles of some offended viewers but was publicly approved and applauded by members of Bernstein’s own family, it’s a meticulously calibrated character study that personifies the conflicted traits, mannerisms, triumphs and flaws of a musical genius who conducted his life like the movements in a symphony, paying a supreme price for the privilege—and the loving, long-suffering wife who wrote and signed the check.
Admire or admonish the result, but protests are a waste of time. Every ravishing frame is the exclusive vision of Bradley Cooper. It’s his film, and he’s in the catbird seat from start to finish.
Or, I should say, it’s Carey Mulligan’s film, because as Lenny’s patient, devoted wife Felicia, who sacrificed her own acting career to guide, support and honor his fame while coping with the pain and humiliation of his numerous homosexual affairs throughout their tortured marriage and the negative effect they had on her, this thrilling, inventive, brilliant and beautiful actress is endlessly mesmerizing. From the day a dying Bruno Walter surrendered his baton and Lenny became a 25-year-old sensation conducting the New York Philharmonic to the day Felicia died of cancer, she was the primary force throughout his life and career, and with radiant naturalism, Mulligan gives ballast to a great centerpiece. Cooper’s direction and exemplary screenplay, co-authored by Josh Singer, are admirably generous in allowing her performance the space it deserves.
The film leaves no stone unturned and no turn unstoned as it investigates every turbulent chapter in Bernstein’s career. You get the Broadway forays with Betty Comden and Adolph Green that produced Candide, On the Town, and West Side Story. From every angle, the director moves into Lenny’s skin with blistering ease. Blending himself in bed with the bodies of his male lovers, chain-smoking and talking like a rapid-fire machine gun, conducting with a baton in one hand and a cigarette in the other, lowering his voice and speaking through his nose almost without breathing, and filling the screen with heart-stopping musical sequences from Beethoven to Mahler’s 2nd Symphony to recreating those popular Young People’s Concerts on Omnibus, Mr. Cooper is awesome. Vocally and physically, he literally disappears into the role.
When the elements combine, you get a film as welcome and rare as a perfect Christmas morning. Maestro is a masterpiece.