Bradley Cooper enjoyed a monster critical and commercial hit with 2018’s A Star is Born, which he directed and starred in, playing an alcoholic country and western crooner, opposite Lady Gaga. How on earth, observers wondered, was he going to trump that success?
Five years on, Cooper is directing and playing the lead in another fine music-based project, albeit one very different in tone. Maestro is a biopic of American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the man who brought us West Side Story and On the Town.
The film arrives trailing controversy in its wake. In advance of its world premiere this weekend in Venice, Cooper, a non-Jewish actor, has been excoriated in the media for wearing a prosthetic nose as Bernstein. It was naive of him not to have anticipated the furore his make-up was going to cause. Nonetheless, no one who sees the film will argue that this is anything other than an affectionate portrait. Cooper is effortlessly charming as the musician, playing him as a gregarious and lovable figure whose face seems to be fixed into a near-permanent smile.
Bernstein is a mass of contradictions. He’s a conductor, teacher and TV personality as well as a composer. He writes both orchestral works and Broadway musicals. He needs privacy and solitude to create but loves to live his life flamboyantly in public.
It can’t be said that the script, which Cooper co-wrote with Josh Singer, is especially taut. The storytelling is choppy and episodic. Scenes are strung together in a sometimes random fashion. However, Carey Mulligan is magnificent as the musician’s South American wife, Felicia, a successful actor in her own right. She a warm, glamorous figure who mothers Bernstein even as he betrays her, and looks after his wardrobe (one reason why he becomes more dapper as the film goes on). Mulligan (who looks certain to win awards nominations) captures her character’s pragmatism, imperiousness and, in the latter scenes, her extreme vulnerability.
Tensions in the marriage erupt because Lennie is bisexual and can’t give up his male lovers. (At one stage, we see him playing percussion on his boyfriend’s buttocks). He adores Felicia but betrays her. She thinks she understands his nature and can deal with his infidelity, but ultimately ends up devastated by his deceptions.
Early scenes are shot in black and white. Like Lady Gaga’s Ally Maine in A Star is Born, Bernstein enjoys a meteoric rise. He fills in at very short notice when the conductor of the New York Philharmonic falls ill, cementing his reputation in the process. He is only 25 at the time, a young bohemian on the make.
Bernstein is prodigiously talented but often far too busy socialising or teaching students to do justice to his own gifts. He’s ambitious, sometimes ruthless and yet has a laidback bonhomie that marks him out as very different from the hard-driving fictional conductor played by Cate Blanchett in last year’s Oscar contender, Tar. He is the type of man so desperate for company that he won’t even lock the bathroom door.
Author Tom Wolfe famously satirised Bernstein as embodying “radical chic”. He was a wealthy, privileged New Yorker who hosted swanky parties for the Black Panthers at which he would serve little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Cooper goes in far more gently on the conductor than Wolfe did but leaves us in no doubt that Bernstein enjoyed being around people from all sorts of backgrounds, sometimes to the detriment of his work.
In its weaker moments, the film offers lacklustre recreations of moments in Bernstein’s career that can be found online in old YouTube clips. For instance, we see him and Felicia interviewed at home on TV by renowned broadcaster Ed Murrow. It’s an intriguing scene but doesn’t add anything that isn’t already there in the original Murrow show.
Nonetheless, Cooper is an inventive director with an eye for a striking shot. He generally finds original ways to frame scenes. Several of the most heated spats between Bernstein and Felicia take place in the bedroom, as he is changing his socks or folding his trousers. There’s a devastating moment of betrayal in which Bernstein is spotted by Felicia at the end of a corridor in an embrace with his lover Tommy (Gideon Glick). She doesn’t say anything and he tries to pass it off as nothing important, but it’s at this point their marriage begins to unravel.
Cooper also uses moments from Bernstein’s work, for example, sailors hoofing it up in On the Town, to reveal details about his life. As an actor, he goes to extreme lengths to portray Bernstein accurately. He is shown playing the piano seemingly very proficiently. Everything about his performance from the hair to the gestures to that already notorious nose has clearly been thought about deeply. This, though, isn’t one of those biopics portraying a long-suffering artist tormented by his own gifts. In order to create, Bernstein needs the music to “sing in” him. He is at his best when he is happiest – and he is at his happiest when Felicia is by his side.
“A work of art does not answer questions. It provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers,” Bernstein famously said, in a quote that features in the film (produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg). Fittingly, then, we never learn exactly what makes Bernstein tick. Cooper shows us his subject’s mix of magnetism, volatility and childlike egotism but he remains a strangely elusive figure. It’s left to Mulligan’s Felicia to crack the film’s sometimes too-shiny facade and to give its story some bruising emotional depth.
‘Maestro’ is in cinemas in November, and streams on Netflix from 20 December