Leonard Bernstein is probably one of the most celebrated conductors and composers of recent history. He has done fantastic and one of a kind work for different orchestras, musicals, movies and more. Bernstein is a musician that deserves to be ranked among the best in American history. That being said, how many people actually know the truth about his life? This question is what led to the making of the movie “Maestro.” This film explores Bernstein’s life up to the very end. However, while the film is meant to be an up-close look at his life, in some ways, it is too close. Instead of looking at his career, it pays more attention to his personal life. While the personal life is the part that people do not know as well, that does not mean his personal life is terribly fascinating. It was a unique choice, but did it pay off? I do not believe that it did. It was a new format for a biopic, but new is not always better. The storytelling flaws are this movie’s downfall, which is unfortunate for such a larger than life man. While there were some intriguing moments, I was hoping to get more out of this film. Released on Netflix on Dec. 20, “Maestro” is revealing the true Bernstein, but it might not be the Bernstein that interests audiences.
In the early 1940s, Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) is a young man who is at the point in his career where he is lucky enough to be a substitute conductor. He is also living life out of the closet, but only in his private life. However, everything changes when he meets Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Considering the time period, the acts of Bernstein’s private life could not be put on public display if he wanted to make it as a conductor, so Montealegre is the perfect woman to fill the role as his wife. That does not mean that Bernstein did not love Montealegre. He certainly loved her and cared for her deeply. Nevertheless there was always something off. She devoted her life to him and always supported his career, while he would sometimes sneak off with an attractive man or two. As time went on, Bernstein became a huge success in the music world in various mediums. He is now a household name in terms of famous composers. Montealegre is with Bernstein through every step of the way as his doting wife. Nevertheless, their relationship is much different behind closed doors. This film shows the Bernstein that the public never got to see.
The main element that narrowly keeps this film from unforgettable territory is the main performances. Cooper is clearly passionate about this film and it comes across in his performance. He embodies Bernstein, from his younger years of musical struggle to his elderly life after decades of accomplishments. While he does have his exaggerated moments, Cooper wants to show the emotions that Bernstein was dealing with. He wanted to demonstrate that Bernstein was a human being underneath all of his music and awards. While that does not pay off in the plot, it does pay off with the intensity that Cooper gives in his performance. The same could also be said for Mulligan’s performance. While most people know who Bernstein is, people do not know much about his wife. Mulligan aims to make her a person that audiences remember. Felicia put her own career aside to let her husband shine, but now she gets the chance to shine. Mulligan is credited above Cooper in the cast list, and that is because it is time for Felicia’s story to be shown. Luckily, Mulligan does her justice so she comes across as more than somebody’s wife. While it is not my favorite performance of Mulligan’s, it is clear she wants to play Felicia authentically, and that is what makes her a fascinating character to watch.
“Maestro” goes in many directions, and while many of them are unique, the film itself feels underwhelming. I respect the choice to make the beginning black and white, representing that his life lacked color before his success. However, it is ironic that the parts that are in black and white are more interesting than the ones that are in color. When the film is setting up his life, all of the details about his experiences are revealed, and it is fun to see him all wide-eyed by the world of conducting. It looked like they were setting the film up for some excitement. However, that did not end up happening. The parts where he was established felt more subtle, and it did not look like anything of note was happening even though that was certainly not true for his career. I wish that the film was able to capture some of the energy from the beginning and bring it to the rest of the film. Another problem, which connects to the lack of excitement in most of the film, came from the storytelling. It seems that the film was told in vignettes, taking little stories from his life that are many years apart. That made the film feel a bit disjointed and hard to follow, as I wish the storytelling was more linear. When the stories don’t connect, I do not feel intrigued by what is happening enough, because the stakes feel low. Some films can make unorganized stories work, but these stories were not thrilling enough. So not only could I not follow what was happening, I did not really want to follow what was happening.
The film wanted to take a new approach to the typical biopic formula, which is a respectable idea. However, the final product does not do Bernstein’s life justice. Maestro completely glosses over the accomplishments of Bernstein in favor of his marriage struggles. We only hear in passing what he has accomplished, as if it is no big deal to work on the music for projects like On the Waterfront and West Side Story, as well as all of his conducting work. While that may be the point the film is trying to make, that the inner struggles could have had a bigger influence on his life, I wish the film was able to demonstrate that point in a bigger way so that we could understand the importance. The film could have been a fictional story and the overall impact would have been the same. The only notable focus of his career was his conducting of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at the Ely Cathedral in England. This scene was able to demonstrate that Bernstein is a talented man and show why he is one of the most notable modern conductors. However, other than that, an audience member who has never heard of Bernstein will not understand his importance from watching this film.
When it comes to films that are Oscar bait, as in they seem to just be trying to check all of the boxes for an Oscar, I generally do not have a problem. However, I would like an Oscar-bait film to at least offer me something interesting. I would like to learn more about Bernstein’s career. I want to know how he got his opportunities, what opportunities ended up not panning out, what his process was for writing, what he loved about music and more information. Instead, I saw that he had a struggling marriage and was a closeted gay man. Frankly, I am pretty sure I already knew that information about his life. I just wanted to see what made Bernstein who he was as a person. I also wish that the story gripped me more, which was hard with all of the separate little segments of his life. Maybe if the film was connected better, I would have liked it more, even with the problems in the details. Nevertheless, there were not enough aspects of the film that drew me in. I can see how this is something that Oscar voters like, as it is the life story of a really famous man combined with an emotional relationship. Their attempt paid off, with the film getting seven Oscar nominations. However, this film was not one for me. If you want to see a plain retelling of the life of Leonard Bernstein, or you want to see a couple get more and more strained over a couple hours, watch “Maestro” today.