Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) was the kind of personality who could put advanced musical concepts into words that the layman could understand.
Bernstein hosted a season of the popular 1950s network television Sunday afternoon show Omnibus. In each episode he dissected subjects like Beethoven’s Fifth, Jazz, Conducting, American Musical Comedy, Opera, Bach, all with insider knowledge but explained sincerely so a six-year-old could understand.
That’s the Bernstein I know. Before seeing Maestro the only other Bernstein exposure would be the fact that he wrote the music for West Side Story. Or clips in documentaries like the recent Tom Wolfe doc Radical Wolfe where the columnist account of a late-60s Bernstein hosted fund raiser for the Black Panthers was satirized as the nouveau riche hanging out with radicals.
The Bernstein we meet in Bradley Cooper’s Maestro dwells in a more refined space filled with equal parts super-creative-mood-swings and hidden personal life.
The Leonard Bernstein project has been in lengthy development over years and Cooper the producer/director stepped in at the right moment to get the film made, starring himself. Spielberg and Scorsese are listed as producers. Cooper brings a wide-eyed exuberance to his character that suits the larger than life elements.
There are some tremendous tracking shots, a few of them overhead angles very effective in establishing Bernstein waking in his bedroom at Carnegie Hall and running downstairs only to be in full tuxedo as he steps to the podium of a sold-out house.
There are moments of absurd recognition such as a scene late in the film where Bernstein drives up to his country home with his kids in a sports car with the radio blasting the lyrics “Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs,” from the R.E.M. banger “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
You cannot deny the brilliance of Bradley Cooper’s direction as well as his performance as Leonard Bernstein. Carey Mulligan as his wife matches Cooper beat for beat. It’s a contentious marriage marked with peaks and valleys.
Even as the film shifts from old school black-and-white to saturated color the relationship of Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre hinges on the fact that they’re both accomplished artists in their field, hers acting his music. Their love beats sincere yet Bernstein can’t keep other men out of his bed.
There’s a moment midway through where the couple is having a loud verbal argument during Thanksgiving. It’s obvious they live somewhere between Central Park West and Herald Square since the Macy’s Day Parade seems to be floating past their windows.
Just as the emotions of their heated squabble reach an emotional peak the Snoopy float passes by.
Masterful, just like Bernstein’s life.
Maestro is currently in select theaters and streams on Netflix starting December 20.