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Home > ‘Maestro’ (2023): A Review

‘Maestro’ (2023): A Review

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montelegre in Maestro, Courtesy of Netflix

The Perfect Portrait of an Imperfect Man

Flawed and Brilliant

Maestro is a triumphant sophomore outing for writer-actor-director Bradley Cooper. Success trickles downhill, as this film was passed first from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg before finally finding its auteur in Cooper, who, through Bernstein, paints the perfect picture of an imperfect man. 

Full of Hot Air

Biopics often attempt to bathe the figures they represent in a shimmering light of radiance. Sometimes, this is because the foundations that protect these persons’ have a vested interest in maintaining a public image. Such is not the case with Maestro, though. Indeed, it might be said this film is a tragedy, watching a man’s meteoric rise as a conductor mirrored against the rapid deterioration of his personal life. In that way, the film has more in common with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf than Mr. Hollands Opus. But Maestro is different; it’s a portrait painted through sound, and much like sitting, too close to a concerto, the sound can be deafening at times.

The film follows Leonard Bernstein, the titular Maestro himself, charting the rise of the then 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his explosive career trajectory composing operas and Broadway musicals. Much of this is done off camera; Bernstein’s genius is never questioned throughout the film’s over two-hour run time. Bernstein was a professional success by every commercial standard. Realizing this, Cooper and writer Josh Singer wisely tell much of the story off-stage; scenes often taking place at rehearsals or parties, behind closed doors both figuratively and literally. The successes of Berstein’s professional life are the glossy framework for his myriad marital struggles. 

Despite being a closeted homosexual, Bernstein marries Felicia Montealegre, an American actress who puts part of her rising career on hold to support her husband, who seems to suck up all the air in every room he occupies. Felicia is supportive and loving, but as Leonard’s dalliances become more public and reckless, Felicia’s resolve gradually crumbles. After an explosive argument in their apartment during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—where balloons serve as a brilliant backdrop for a man so full of hot air he can’t see past the nose on his face, (pun intended)—Felicia warns Leonard that if he isn’t careful, he will die a “lonely, old queen.”

The film then jumps ahead in time a few years. Does his marriage to Felicia stand the test of time at this point? Cooper’s Bernstein might answer this question during the scene when he is conducting Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. In the final sequence of the film, we follow the later days of Leonard’s career, paralleling Felicia’s death from breast cancer with a return to his old ways as Leonard. Cooper seems to shine a light on this, ending the film on more of a negative note than a positive one—not a man redeemed but a man reconciled with who he is, and Bernstein is a man whose vices rival his accomplishments.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montelegre in Maestro, courtesy of Netflix

A Matter of Perspective 

Maestro is told from an interesting mixture of perspectives, often wide and distant, with the camera never stagnant for too long. For readers not familiar with the nomenclature, perspective is akin to vantage point: a director’s tool to inform the audience how to feel about something. It can make comedy cringier, action grander, and stolen kisses all the more intimate. When a film critic notes that the cinematography in a film is uninspired, it means that the selection of shots didn’t tell the viewer anything new, nor elicit any sort of emotional resonance. It was slacked to rather than in service of the narrative; unlike Maestro where perspective is a tool used by Cooper to convey the tone and meaning. 

To evoke this perspective, Cooper once again united with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whom he previously worked with on A Star Is Born (2018). In a particularly notable scene in the garden of the Bernstein home, the camera appears to be 20 or so feet away, lingering beneath the shade of a covered pergola. The audience has a secret window view of the Bernstein marriage, like an interloper or peeping Tom, spying on the neighbors. The conversation is serious, and by keeping distance from the couple, it feels as though the view has stumbled upon a private conversation entirely by accident, but are debating whether or not to intervene before things spiral. 

Likewise, during Leonard and Felicia’s Macy’s Day Parade argument, the perspective is that of a neutral third party, perhaps meant to represent the children in the marriage or simply meant to suggest that we are neutral in the argument, with both bodies equal in the frame, neither full right nor fully wrong. However, interestingly, it is Felicia sitting in the light of the windowsill, and Leonard who slumps on the sofa, shrouded in darkness, and possibly still drunk from the night before, as life outside literally passes him by. 

Not so Black and White

Viewers may be surprised when Maestro suddenly shifts from widescreen and color to black and white, and a much smaller, ironically titled fullscreen aspect ratio (1:33:1) mere moments into the film. But this was always planned by Cooper, who aimed to create a cinematic experience that feels like old Hollywood throughout the 1940s scenes. 

According to Tudum by Netflix, which is a Global Fan Event/pop culture event that covers Netflix’s original films and television series held annually in São Paulo, Brazil, Cooper stated he always planned to switch between different aspect ratios and color spectrums. Per Cooper: “I knew for the first section I wanted to shoot in 35 millimeter, black-and-white. Working with the crew, and just communicating how important it was that the cinema of this feel like a memory, an imagination of these time periods, was so much fun.”

While technicolor film existed before 1943, when Maestro begins, the film uses black and white to represent the past in the narrative. Since most of Maestro takes place in the past, the color sequences act mostly as bookends on the otherwise classic-looking film, occasionally cutting back to Bernstein sitting at his baby grand piano as he comments on his love for Felicia. This stark contrast between B&W and color also serves as a prismatic metaphor for Felica and Leonard’s tumultuous relationship. 

Fullscreen is a much tighter aspect ratio than widescreen, and as an indirect result, the scenes set in the past feel more constricted, and tight, which is how we are meant to feel about the past; that Felicia was at times trapped, shackled to the greatness that is Bernstein, choosing to live in his cold shadow rather than apart. 

Cooper — The Movie Maestro

For fans of Cooper’s work, this is a must see. Cooper proves that his decades as an actor have given him the fuel to fire on all cylinders as a filmmaker. Bolstered by a compelling script, fantastic cinematography, a tragically flawed central protagonist, and a stunning performance by co-star Carey Mulligan, Maestro will pull at anyone’s heartstrings. 

Maestro is now streaming on Netflix.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, Courtesy of Netflix

Official Maestro Netflix Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Caleb aims to write high-concept genre pieces that focus on broken families. His works have been recognized by the Nicholl's Fellowship, the ISA, Screencraft, Launchpad, and Nickelodeon.When not writing Caleb enjoys video games and tabletop RPGs, camping, and is a connoisseur of fine bourbon.

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