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Maestro – a review of the movie

Director: Bradley Cooper
Released: October 2023 

As a big fan of Leonard Bernstein, his music and a fellow gay man as well as an amateur musician, I approached this highly anticipated movie with certain expectations, albeit trying my best to keep an open mind. 

Framing in biopics

With ambitious ‘biopics’ such as this, it’s always about the framing or particular lens through which we try to view or understand the life of a famous personality. In this case, we are referring to the very accomplished and salacious life of Leonard “Lenny” Bernstein (Bradley Cooper), arguably America’s “most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history”. He was known as a conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author, and humanitarian. Regarded as one of the most important conductors of his time, Lenny Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to receive international acclaim. 

Rather than being about the man himself, the movie places Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), an American actress of Costa Rican decent whom Bernstein married, at almost the centre of the storytelling, making it more about the tumultuous love story between the two. 

The movie opens with young Lenny in bed with his current lover, clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and is seen hanging out with other well-known gay artists such as composer Aaron Copland (Brian Klugman) and dancer/choreographer Jerry Robbins (Michael Urie). We then see him get his major break as a conductor at the age of 25, when relatively unknown and serving as assistant conductor to Artur Rodziński of the New York Philharmonic. He was asked to step in, at short notice and without rehearsal, to conduct the orchestra at Carnegie Hall when guest conductor Bruno Walter caught the flu and was suddenly indisposed. Lenny seized the opportunity and with his unexpected major conducting debut of a challenging program he was declared an overnight sensation, setting him off on a trajectory that continued to establish himself as a significant conductor, composer and music educator. 

Courtship & Marriage

We see his chance meeting with Felicia at a party, and soon they are couple in love and before we know it, married with three children. It’s a match made in heaven, so it seems, one that seems to be an amicable arrangement where he plays happily families, while continuing his dalliances with other men on the side, as long as it was all done discreetly.

At critical junctures of his life, we see her there supporting and encouraging him, to the exclusion of other major and long-term relationships he had with other men. We see at various points, his children having to deal with the gossip and whispers about their father’s indiscretions and how their parents chose to deal with it. And in a somewhat contrived way, she’s there in the wings waiting to congratulate him after finishing his well-documented exuberant performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Ely Cathedral in 1973, as if his achievement was only made possible by her loyalty and support. The main story ends when she is diagnosed with cancer, and he cancels performances and chooses to be by her side nursing her in her dying days. 

Creative input from the family

We felt, after recently watching the Tina Turner musical, that despite having thoroughly enjoyed the exuberance and essence of her familiar music presented to us, it was the storytelling, and the way the person’s life was dramatised that somewhat failed to move. With many details of her story already known, having seen various documentaries and movies about her initially troubled life and marriage before making a massively successful career comeback as a solo artist. We learnt that Tina herself had been involved in the artistic development of the theatrical production, no doubt a privilege to have had her direct input before her passing earlier this year. But while it was her right to call the shots, was it the best approach to telling a story, from an audience’s perspective? 

The Maestro movie suffers similarly as a piece of artistic output. It’s easy to understand that director Bradley Cooper, who also plays Lenny Bernstein, would have been keen and needed the blessing of the late subject’s estate to make use of its artistic source material. It is therefore unsurprising that what has emerged is an account of the relationship between two people that would appease their kids, not necessarily one that would have satisfactorily explored the truth and real essence of the man or even that relationship with his wife.

Was the marriage a sham?

One of the critical differences and departures from reality which the movie takes liberties with concerns how the courtship played out. The movie suggests that Lenny’s courtship and marriage to Felicia was straightforward and linear when it was, in fact, disjointed. Their engagement which happened very quickly after they met barely lasted a year before they called it off. It wasn’t until Felicia’s next suitor, fellow actor Richard Hart died that she went back to Lenny and decided to marry him on the rebound. 

The movie suggests that Felicia was aware of his questions about his sexuality and that he was bisexual when it was more a case, according to people who knew him, that he was gay. A letter she wrote to him reveals she was fully aware of this even before their marriage. While he was also known to have had adulterous relationships with women, these were less notable and it was quite clear that once his wife died, he didn’t try and conceal his fondness for men and was almost only seen in the company of male lovers towards the end of his life.  

Felicia, whom we can believe really loved Lenny, knew what she was getting into and may have, at some point, felt constricted by the need to play not only his faithful domestic and artistic arch-supporter but also bear with the frustration of having had to forgo her own ambitious to play second fiddle to his rising star. Letters she left behind suggested she knew very well about his homosexuality and still chose to marry him. 

Avoiding mentioning the obvious

By all accounts, Bernstein was a consummate and promiscuous gay man who was also ambitious and understood that he could not have secured compositional commissions, directorial appointments and the success and achievements that came with such creative output if didn’t present himself as a decent public male figure with a family, ie. with a wife and children to boost that image. Like many other prominent gay artists of the time, he knew getting into a marriage would help deflect the truth and present him with an image of middle-class “normalcy” which would open doors to him in a conservative social environment he was compelled to operate in. 

There’s a scene in which Montealegre confronts Bernstein about his embarrassing behaviour. And rather than verbalising her concerns about his sexual indiscretions which is clearly bothering her, she instead berates him for not focusing on his work to achieve his potential. The baffling obliqueness of the situation is exacerbated by a ridiculous inflatable snoopy floating by in the window behind them. 

The movie also omits to mention the struggles he faced in trying to make his marriage work, when he at one stage spent up to 5 years visiting a therapist to potentially resolve or cure him of the “disease” he and his wife thought he may have suffered from. It also suggests his male lovers were all fleeting and the affairs transient compared with his one true long term love affair with Montealegre.

One of those secondary relationships with fellow musician and colleague Tom Cothran is addressed cursorily in the movie, when that relationship put an immense strain on the marriage. It caused wife Felicia to think she had been replaced by Cothran as his closest friend and confident. These fears were confirmed when Bernstein moved to California with Cothran, only for him to return to his wife five years later when that relationship ended. All we see in the movie is a scene where the awkward love triangle is ever so subtly represented by Felicia glancing sideways towards her husband and his lover sitting close to each other right next to her at a performance they all attended together.

A 2019 article published in The Guardian revealed that Bernstein had a very long and clandestine affair with a Japanese man. This was revealed following the discovery of a set of 350 letters in the Library of Congress which the two had exchanged during their 10-year-long relationship. Kunihito Hashimoto was a 26-year-old fan Bernstein had met when the New York Philharmonic was visiting Tokyo in 1979. Hashimoto had gone backstage with a friend after a concert, and they ended up spending the night together. 

Commendable performances

Both acting leads, i.e. Bradley Cooper as Lenny and Carrey Mulligan as his wife Felicia, acquit themselves respectably and turn in commendable performances. Cooper modifies his voice, speech, and mannerism. He also employs a controversial (and so unnecessarily distracting) prosthetic nose created by specialist makeup artist Kazu Hiro to transform himself into Bernstein. 

Where the act of conducting is concerned, Cooper admits to having spent 6 years training to be able to conduct in the movie. There is a culminating scene in the movie which attempts to recreate a famous 1973 performance at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England where Bernstein conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in Mahler’s 2nd “Resurrection” Symphony. It is perhaps meant to give us a taste of how expressive and immersed he was in the music as a conductor. 

However, on closer examination of footage comparing both Bernstein and Cooper conducting the same piece in the same performance configuration, the differences are evident. One is an exuberant and ecstatically expressive exercise in controlling the musical forces at his disposal him, with clear eye contact and communication with the singers and orchestral players and the other a studied and rehearsed caricature of an actor conducting an orchestra. At one point of this 6-minute excerpt, Cooper with his exaggerated and distracting nose looks like Barry Manilow on ecstasy, possessed by the demons of music having a musical fit in front of the orchestra. 

Conducting and coaching

In a behind-the-scenes interview with Yannick Nézet-Séquin, the conducting consultant and conductor for the new music on the movie soundtrack, he was extremely complimentary of Cooper’s acting achievement as a convincing conductor. He explains that his approach to preparing Cooper for the role requiring him to conduct and orchestra was not to try to faithfully mimic Bernstein’s conducting or be overly concerned with the all-consuming technicalities of beating time but to allow for the actor to inhabit the Bernstein conducting persona and also to be free to feel the music and command it with the emotional abandon so characteristic of Bernstein. 

Having performed this monumental piece of music myself several times as a chorister, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing very different styles of conducting of this same piece; from the confident and clear assertiveness of Benjamin Zander to the untrained awkwardness of Gilbert Kaplan and the unique gesticulating physicality of Vladimir Ashkenazy. The most interesting of these was Gilbert Kaplan, an American businessman and financial publisher who, as an aficionado of Mahler’s music, had learnt to conduct just this one piece and goes around the world conducting nothing but Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. While we could certainly feel Kaplan’s personal connection with and passion for the music, it was evident that his late schooling in the art of conducting meant his gestures and ability to communicate musically with orchestra members and singers was less than ideal. In some ways Cooper’s conducting reminded me of Gilbert Kaplan’s conducting, where it was more about him egotistically inhabiting the music than it was him playing the other important technical and organisational role in steering the musicians before him towards a unified output. 

When you examine the clip of Bernstein conducting that final choral passage, as much as you see flashes of him being entirely lost in the music, there is still much eye conduct between him and the human forces he is controlling. While luxuriating in the music, he mouths the German text in a way that conveys his understanding of the meaning of what is being sung. And yet with Cooper’s version, it’s almost like he knows the musicians could go on in auto-pilot mode without any of his cues. Behind-the-scenes footage of him rehearsing on an empty stage with maestro Nézet-Séguin watching on suggests that Cooper was thoroughly rehearsed and focused on miming what had been pre-determined for him to slot into. The orchestra sometimes moves ahead of his confusing time beating, landing on the beat before his baton has reached the cue. And the way he merely opens his mouth forming expressive shapes that don’t quite correspond to the text indicates he wasn’t adequately concerned with such essential details when emulating Maestro Bernstein directing an orchestra. 

A conductor is ever so instrumental in determining how the music turns out. Conducting is a highly communicative activity, not just the way he waves his hands to regulate tempo, volume, and the musical colour, but their facial expression, demeanour and posture are all relevant cues to the musicians they lead. While Cooper’s carriage in much of the 6-minute-long scene is commendable and compatible with the music we are hearing, there a few moments where his concentration lapses so his chest collapses just when there’s a crescendo in the phrase, clearly giving away that he’s not exactly in sync with how the orchestra was prepared and he’s not quite on top of things on the podium. 

For me, Cate Blanchett’s recent portrayal of a leading conductor in Tar, albeit a fictional one, was more successful as she came across more convincingly. Was she better prepared? Or was it perhaps a case of better cinematic choices made in how the conducting scenes were filmed and edited, which managed to cover up any obvious technical shortcomings. Cooper was incredibly ambitious to try and present a full 6-minute sequence of himself conducting a difficult section of a hugely challenging piece, with such irregular and demandingly tempi changes and interpretational scope.

Look and feel, design and styling

The overall aesthetics, including the cinematography (Matthew Libatique), costume design (Mark Bridges) and production design (Kevin Thompson), have been exquisitely done and faithfully captures the essence of the changing eras the story is set. A choice was made to use black and white to depict the contrasting dynamics between the two leading characters, as well as to symbolise the differences in their relationship between different periods. Whatever the intentions, this is not easily discernible and provides yet another distracting element for our viewing.

There are some very clever transitions between scenes, and this is repeated a few times. The fantasy dance ballet scene where Lenny and Felicia dance to the score from Bernstein’s own score for Fancy Free (which had originally been choreographed by Jerome Robbins) then transitioning into On the Town, which Bernstein also wrote, was theatrical and poetic. It was yet another vehicle for Cooper to show off his dancing skills, in which a dancing body double was not used, and he actually trained for months under dance teacher Craig Saltein to deliver the scene.

‘Straight-washing’ the truth

While the movie does not shy away from acknowledging Bernstein’s homosexual proclivities in this story of a gifted queer musical genius who got married to advance his career, it does take great pains to avoid mentioning the uncomfortable words “gay” or “homosexual”. No wonder his family were reportedly very happy with the result! To quote a comment made about the movie, “this is a movie about a queer genius made by and for straight people.”

Even if one were to willingly overlook the conscious avoidance of the use of labels in the movie (be it gay, straight, bisexual, polyamorous, etc), it seems almost deceitful and unsatisfactory to have called the movie “Maestro” and then steered Lenny Bernstein’s story towards a “sanitised” and socially palatable version of his life, as seen from the point of view of his long suffering wife or children. If that were indeed the intent, I’d have rather the movie have been more appropriately titled “Mrs Bernstein”, “Felicia’s Sacrifice”, “My life as Lenny’s Wife” or something like that. 

We can only surmise that the movie sought to paint Lenny as a straight man who married the love of his life, couldn’t help dabbling in in a few insignificant homosexual dalliances but stuck with her to the end. While we do not doubt that he loved her and was even there to nurse her during her dying days following her being diagnosed with a terminal illness, this narrative was clearly a lie.

If you really want to understand more about the man and his music, you’re probably better off referring one of the many biographies about Bernstein. Or you could turn to his rich legacy of recordings and broadcasts which show how he sought to bring the joy, beauty, and enjoyment of classical music to the masses. It’s a pity those aspects of his life, which made him so recognisable and valued by the public were conspicuously absent in this limited cinematic exploration of the man and his marriage.

Sadly, we never got to see him “glitter and be gay”!