‘Maestro’ Review: Bradley Cooper’s Magnificent Portrait of an Artist I LFF


If you’re expecting to walk out of Maestro with an in-depth look into how Leonard Bernstein developed his immense talent for composing, you will be disappointed. Bradley Cooper’s second directorial effort does not dive deep into the inner workings of the mind of one of the greatest musicians of all time. We don’t see him translating the sound of his mother’s humming into a score when he’s a child. There is no college years montage of him honing his craft and proving to his skeptical professors that he is a genius in the making. This is not your typical biopic. It is the story of a marriage and life between two people — one of them just happens to be one of the best composers of all time. And the other, well, that’s what the film sets out to tell you. Felicia Montealegre may not be a name as widely known as Leonard Bernstein, but in Maestro, she is at the center of the world.

What Is ‘Maestro’ About?

Image via Netflix

We meet Leonard (“Lenny” to his close ones, of which there are many), as he gets the call that will change his life forever. The head conductor at Carnegie Hall is sick and so a young Bernstein, who is the assistant conductor, is called upon to head the performance — without any rehearsals, mind you. He bursts onto the main stage with triumph. When he’s not on stage, he’s writing music in a bathroom but can’t close the door for fear of being alone even just for a second. He has relationships with men, mainly Matt Bomer’s David Oppenheim, and it’s not treated as a life-destroying sin. He’s discrete but not ashamed.

Then, against one of Bernstein’s grand, loud scores, we meet Felicia (Carey Mulligan), just as Leonard does. Their eyes meet across the room at a party, and then they are sharing secrets in a tight corner of the room — the world entirely theirs. They fall in love immediately, him praising her talents on stage while she reassures him that scores for film and musicals are real music — something he has difficulty accepting despite his love for this area of music. The film jumps years every now and then, and we follow the two artists as they have children, support each other’s craft (her more so than him), and ostensibly remain mad about each other. But the secrets that Felicia must keep for him start weighing harder on her, and he becomes sloppy in his covertness. The powers that be push them apart; she wants to protect their children and he has to balance being a great artist, a husband and father, and his own insecurities that lead him to need everyone to love him. The world is on both of their shoulders, but they can’t distribute the weight.

‘Maestro’s Script Subverts Classic Biopic Tropes

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro
Image Via Netflix

The script’s approach to Bernstein’s life is Maestro’s greatest strength. We all know who Bernstein is, what he’s done, and how much of a genius he was. Cooper cuts out all the regular narrative choices of a biopic to bring a refreshing tale of a marriage between two passionate and loving people. Another masterstroke is how Cooper lets the music talk for itself. Instead of spending minutes with Bernstein cramped over his desk writing “Jet Song,” it plays over a fairly non-eventful scene as Leonard brings home his latest fling to his family. The music may not match what’s happening in the scene, but it doesn’t matter. These needle drops serve the purpose of reminding the audience that Bernstein did that. It allows for more character-driven directions and as a backdrop to Leonard and Felicia’s conflict; while they suffer the same strains as any marriage (and then some), these beautiful scores tell us that while marriage is hard, being married to such a legendary artist is even harder. However, there are some masterful sequences as he conducts orchestras, whether in rehearsals or in grand churches, that also blow the mind.

There are times when it’s stupefying that this is only Cooper’s second film as director. Right from the very first second, his lighting and angle choices are pointedly appropriate for what’s happening in that scene. From fast pans turned upside down of the opulent Carnegie Hall to up-close shots of Felicia as she has to continue to bite her lip to dark shadows that shield half a room, half a person, and half the truth — it seems Cooper took everything from A Star Is Born and upgraded it to fit a plot of a grander scale. Biopics are never usually the most beautiful of films (except for the work of Pablo Larraín), yet Maestro is a treat for all of your senses. There is never a shot wasted for your eyes or ears. It’s a rollercoaster of an experience and not just because of how high emotions are from beginning to end. Cooper captures the magic of musical theater, the intimacy of a marriage that is as loving as it is painful, and the torture of an artist who is deathly afraid of being alone. This is Cooper’s greatest achievement to date, undoubtedly earning him a nod for Best Director. (Although he will have incredibly tough competition to go up against).

RELATED: Bradley Cooper’s ‘Maestro’ to Close AFI Fest This October

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper Are at Their Best in ‘Maestro’

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper as Felicia Montealegre and Leonard Bernstein in Maestro
Image via Netflix

Bradley Cooper certainly does not spare his performance to focus on the direction. Playing a beloved artist from his 20s all the way to his 70s is no small feat. He’s able to make Bernstein the legend he was while also playing a lonely man who is tormented by the pain he inflicts on his loved ones. Carey Mulligan gives one of the best performances of the year as Felicia Montealegre. She follows Felicia’s evolution from a besotted young woman in love to a devoted and dutiful wife and mother to an exhausted secret-bearer to a middle-aged woman grappling with the choices she has made and never misses a damn beat. There is one scene three-quarters of the way through in which Mulligan’s raw and devastating work allows you to release all the pent-up emotions you’ve been holding onto. While Leonard and Felicia seem larger than life with their wealth, talents, and 1950s transatlantic accents — moments like these work to make them scared and vulnerable humans just like the rest of us. Without any spoilers for those who aren’t familiar with her life, Mulligan does not let Felicia slip away from her as she has to shift gears.

These two brilliant performances would mean nothing if they didn’t work together. Thankfully, Mulligan and Cooper have some of the best chemistry seen in recent cinema. They love, dote on, and care for each other so deeply that it feels like they could melt into one (while still standing strong as their own person). But as time makes them bitter, impatient, and exhausted in their marriage, they go up against each other like titans who know their opponent’s every weakness. Even in their explosive argument (one of the film’s best scenes) it’s still never doubtful that they love each other as much as the day they met. Behind every insult, cold shoulder, and screaming match is that familiarity only shared between people who are as close as can be. It’s a masterclass in chemistry and how performances need to work together to work at all.

Maestro is a refreshing subversion of the classic biopic. This could have easily gone the Oppenheimer route, playing it safe script-wise and hitting all the familiar beats of a film tracking the life and career of a great mind. Don’t get me wrong, Oppenheimer is a masterpiece, but focusing on the marriage of Leonard and Felicia is a much more interesting path to take while never sacrificing the exploration of Bernstein’s genius. Cooper seems comfortable and confident enough now to take risks and not appease the stereotypical expectations of movies like these. It’s by no means experimental or “weird,” but it does allow for something Hollywood seems to still find alien — allowing men and women to share the stage. The wives of these great men are usually sidelined (hi Baz Luhrmann) because honing in on a marriage or relationship might take away from what’s really of importance here: how said man became such an icon that we’re here watching a film about his life. But watching Leonard Bernstein through the lens of his personal relationships against a beautifully timed soundtrack of his work allows for something way more dazzling — a portrait of the artist as a married man.

Rating: A

The Big Picture

  • Maestro is not your typical biopic, as it focuses on the marriage and life between Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre rather than just his musical genius.
  • The script subverts classic biopic tropes by emphasizing this relationship between Leonard and Felicia and letting the music speak for itself.
  • Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan deliver brilliant performances and have excellent chemistry, bringing depth and vulnerability to their characters’ marriage.

Maestro screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.

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