This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie/series/feature being covered here wouldn't exist.
BY ALEX GILSTON OCTOBER 17, 2023
Maestro is a beautiful, and truthful biopic about Leonard Bernstein, who takes center stage in Bradley Cooper’s sophomore directorial effort. His life, and work are laid bare in both beautiful monochrome and technicolor. There’s also a fierce focus on his relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre played by Carey Mulligan to incredible effect.
Maestro follows the life of legendary conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein. From his lucky break standing in for an ailing conductor at the New York Philharmonic all the way up to a time close to his death. It pinpoints the big moments in his personal and professional life from having his children to his most famous conducting moments.
Bradley Cooper has proven that he has the eye for direction with his debut film A Star is Born, and Maestro is no different. Each hand-picked moment builds upon the last to create a compelling through-line amongst Bernstein’s long and successful life.
Maestro is, in its simplest presentation, a love story. There was only one thing that Bernstein was as passionate about as music and that was Felicia Montealegre. This is about her just as much as it is about Bernstein, and that’s obvious in the way Cooper centres Felicia in the narrative. No matter what Bernstein is doing she is always there in some capacity, even down to walking in on him getting physical with other people. Despite what he puts Felicia through Cooper angles her as his fiercest supporter right until the end.
Leonard Bernstein’s queerness is approached in a meaningful way in Maestro. Before meeting Felicia, Bernstein was in relationships with men and throughout their relationship he engaged in further relations with various other men too. Although he loved his wife he was never his true self during those years. Cooper frames his freedom through the scenes where Bernstein is conducting orchestras. It’s during these moments where his performance is at its most expressive. He’s in a world where he has all the control and his huge sweeping gestures show he’s content there.
It’s not until the end of the film where he’s shown to be living his true self, where he’s teaching a class of prospective conductors. This is a lovely moment as it shows he’s willing to share in that freedom he now possesses. Importantly though ending with these sentiments doesn’t devalue his relationship with Felicia. It also doesn’t villainise him for simply loving who he wants to love, a trope biopics often fall foul too.
Impressively Maestro utilises Bernstein’s work to act as the score. It’s utterly phenomenal, and it is incredibly fun to recognise all of his most famous pieces including excerpts from his inimitable West Side Story score. It becomes transcendental when we are given a front row seat to Bernstein’s concerts. There is one particular scene where you will genuinely start to lift from your seat because of how goosebump-inducing it is.
Maestro sees Bradley Cooper at the top of his game. He’s slowly building a filmography that could go down in history with legendary status. It’s crafted perfectly and headed up by two incredible performances.