Skip to main content
film review


Directed by Bradley Cooper

Written by Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer

Starring Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan and Sarah Silverman

Classification N/A; 129 minutes

Opens in select theatres Dec. 1, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 20

Critic’s Pick

Taking the old joke asking how you get to Carnegie Hall to operatic new heights, writer-director-star Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro is a production built on practice, practice, practice.

A movie made by a showman, about a showman, for audiences who appreciate showmen, Cooper’s second directorial effort after A Star Is Born has the rhythm, scope and big brass, ahem, chutzpah of an artist who has honed his craft to as fine a form as possible. Yet all the rehearsal in the world cannot produce magic so much as conjure the hopeful spectre of it. As intense and rigorous and thoroughly impressive a work Maestro is, the triple-threat Cooper cannot quite summon the nerve, or verve, to go completely off-book.

Split into two parts – the first shot in crisp black and white, the other in highly saturated colour, with an aspect-ratio change arriving late in the latter – Maestro is no mere checklist of Bernstein’s CV. There are many excellent, often funny musical cues that nod to his most beloved compositions (you’ll never guess where and when Cooper decides to do a West Side Story needle-drop), but mostly this is a tracing of a marriage, not a man. And it is inside that sometimes sturdy but often thorny relationship between Bernstein and Broadway actor Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) where Cooper finds the metronome of his story’s beating heart.

When Maestro opens, Bernstein hits life’s lottery on two fronts. At just 25, he gets the call to guest-conduct the New York Philharmonic at the last minute – enthusiastically patting the butt of his sometimes lover, the clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), like a set of bongos over the good news – and then a little while later he meets Montealegre at a friend’s party. Bernstein’s professional achievements balloon just as his romance with Montealegre blossoms, and Cooper fast-forwards through their courtship straight past marriage and first-born child to upper-class Manhattan domestication.

This more blissful – and for Montealegre, blissfully ignorant – stage of the pair’s union includes a handful of standout sequences that mix history with fantasy, including one moment in which Montealegre whisks her beau away from a suffocating lunch in the countryside to a staging of Bernstein’s musical On the Town. It is during this scene, in which Bernstein himself briefly inhabits the role of a sensually swaying sailor, when Cooper starts to also lay things on just a little too thick. Watching Montealegre watching Bernstein watching himself – a moment in which all participants become aware that there is a side to this man that will never be shared with anyone but himself – lands as a note just too perfectly engineered.

Open this photo in gallery:

This image released by Netflix shows Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in a scene from "Maestro." (Jason McDonald/Netflix via AP)Jason McDonald/The Associated Press

Once the fact settles in that Cooper is going full-tilt, though, Maestro becomes an easier extravaganza to swallow. The marital drama between Bernstein and Montealegre especially pops when Cooper switches the film to colour, a palette adjustment signifying the more permissive sexual attitudes of the changing times, even if the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio remains, a reminder that the marriage is hardly free of suffocation.

In a scene destined, and designed, to act as an awards-reel clip at both the Oscars and future lifetime-achievement ceremonies, Cooper shoots a closed-door confrontation between a middle-aged Bernstein and Montealegre in one single, static shot, the camera placed far from the actors’ faces but close enough to take in the distance the lovers have put between themselves. As the pair trade insinuations and insults – with Montealegre unloading a machine-gun clip of grievances faster than Bernstein can ever hope to cock his own weapon – New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade unfolds outside the windows of the couple’s luxury apartment, the lumbering presence of a giant Snoopy float hilariously contrasting the rapidly deteriorating stability of a decades-long relationship.

Later, in the film’s most go-for-broke moment, a sweaty, exuberant Bernstein conducts Mahler’s demanding Resurrection Symphony inside England’s Ely Cathedral for an audience of many (but really, one: Montealegre). Cooper shoots the performance as an extended, highly concentrated explosion of artistry that feels two seconds away from literally igniting. It is a baton-drop moment in which both Bernstein (as subject) and Cooper (as filmmaker and star) leave it all on the floor.

These highs, though, must rest against a number of here-we-go elements familiar to any biopic, up to and including the moment when Montealegre is diagnosed with cancer, a turn that only works due to Mulligan. Cooper, who for much of the film sports the most convincing old-age makeup ever seen on-screen (including an already and needlessly controversial schnozz), does well conveying the ambitions and orbit-pulling charm of a generational talent. But it is his co-star who deserves the spotlight.

A good and necessary debate can be had about hiring Mulligan to play the Costa Rican-Chilean Montealegre. But there is no question as to the strength – the tenacity and fragility – of the actor’s performance. Singing Mulligan’s praises is not enough. She deserves her own symphony.

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” These are the words – Bernstein’s own – that open Cooper’s film, an audacious bit of ambition-setting as there ever was. But by the time Maestro closes, moviegoers won’t have questions so much as quibbles. Practice can be impressive, but it doesn’t always make perfect.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe