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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Maestro': Bradley Cooper Soars as Actor and Director in Spectacular Biopic

Given how successful Bradley Cooper's directorial debut A Star is Born was, it's a little surprising that it has taken him five years to make another film. One would think that Cooper would want to capitalize off the success of that film rather quickly, but the road to get to his sophomore feature has taken a bit longer than expected. However, it is clear from the opening moments of Maestro that he didn't want to rush anything. It is so clear from the outset that Cooper and company have put a lot of care and hard work into this film, and it pays off beautifully. It takes some swings, mainly in terms of its narrative structure and some larger creative flourishes that might not connect with some viewers. However, the whole film comes together to paint a magnificent and moving portrait of Leonard Bernstein, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and zeros in on who he was as a person. With winning performances, incredible visuals, and Bernstein's iconic music underscoring the entire film, this is a loving, beautifully crafted biopic that left me completely awestruck.

As the film begins, we are transported to Leonard Bernstein's (Bradley Cooper) younger years as an upstart composer and conductor who is beginning to garner some recognition. One night at a party, he meets Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a young actress who instantly takes a shine to him. The film follows their lives together, and how they balance their careers, passions, and personal issues, providing a complex examination of their marriage, as well as who Leonard Bernstein was as a person.

As someone who loved A Star is Born, I was very curious to see what Bradley Cooper would bring to the table with this film. Star showed that he had potential as a filmmaker, but it's not like he was doing anything groundbreaking with his approach to the film. With Maestro, it feels like he has leveled up exponentially, as he really swings for the fences with some of his creative choices. Most of this comes from the script, as the film feels a bit fractured in terms of its narrative. While some might be quick to call it disjointed, I'd argue that this is kind of the whole point. Much of the film feels like we are seeing Bernstein's own memories, specifically those of Felicia Montealegre and their marriage. It ends up being more of a collage than a straightforward biopic, but I appreciate that it goes against the grain in terms of its structure. It makes the film more interesting, and does an excellent job of portraying Bernstein as an actual person instead of simply an icon. It may not have scenes of Bernstein composing West Side Story or his Young People's Concerts that aired on CBS, but I applaud it for focusing more on Bernstein's personal life instead of just playing the hits and calling it good.

Those looking for this film to tell them everything about Leonard Bernstein will likely be disappointed, as this film is not a comprehensive account of his life and accomplishments. The film does expect you to at least know who Bernstein is going into it, so if you are unaware of him, you might be a little confused. As for me, I've been familiar with Bernstein's work for most of my life, so this film played incredibly well to me. Not to mention that this film is a breath of fresh air among your standard biopics. So many biopics tend to feel like reading a Wikipedia article, but this film doesn't give off that impression in the slightest. It is just so deeply heartfelt, and isn't afraid to show the good and the bad of Bernstein's life. The film's approach might not work for some, but it worked so well for me.

Cooper's direction is what truly makes this film soar, as he is doing so many fascinating things behind the camera. The choice of having nearly half the film in black and white and the rest in color, as well as using a boxier aspect ratio for the earlier sequences and a wider one for the later ones is simple, yet works so perfectly for the film overall. It matches up so well with how grand Bernstein's life becomes, and his rising influence and success. On a similar topic, the stillness of the camera in the film's more intimate moments gives off an almost voyeuristic implication, as if we are seeing something we probably shouldn't. One scene, which involves an argument between Bernstein and Montealegre on Thanksgiving is a prime example of this, as the camera stays stationary for a long time, giving the impression that we are in the room with them. A lot of credit is due to Matthew Libatique, who nails these moments of stillness, while also providing some of the more exhilirating camera movements of the year in other moments. One of the opening scenes is a long take involving Bernstein getting a phone call and running through the halls, and it is shot so incredibly that it took my breath away. Furthermore, the slow, more methodical movement we see in a couple of the scenes of Bernstein conducting is also well-played. This is one of the most gorgeously shot films of the year, and some of Libatique's best work.

Cooper mostly presents the film in a more realistic manner, but he does include a few creative flourishes. Most notably, there is a fantasy sequence that references the musical On the Town, which eventually becomes a full on choreographed showstopper. It is a moment that comes with little warning, but it is a fascinating touch for sure. Cooper puts a lot of care into the moments of spectacle the film has, and he knows when to include these moments to have maximum effect. Not to mention that he integrates Bernstein's music in fascinating ways all throughout the film. It's not always used in ways you would expect, but the selections the film uses are deployed rather well. Of course, a lot of the most spectacular moments are still relatively simple, as one of the film's best moments involves Bernstein conducting Symphony No. 2. The scene, which takes place in a beautiful cathedral, focuses on the musicians, vocalists, and Cooper's Bernstein, and we see the camera slowly move through all of them. It truly is thrilling to watch, and the emotional gracenote it hits at the end is such a good lead-in to the remainder of the film. Cooper truly has the goods as a director, and I was stunned by how well he pulls this film off.

Of course, Cooper's performance is also quite incredible, as he fully embodies Leonard Bernstein's voice and mannerisms. From the moment he shows up in the very first scene of the film, I was surprised by how he seemed to disappear into the role, and how committed he is in this performance. I will say that the make-up does help out a lot, especially in the scenes where Bernstein is much older, but Cooper isn't doing the typical "guy puts on a ton of make up and does a mediocre impression of a famous person" thing by any stretch. You can tell that he cares about Bernstein, and the make-up helps him convincingly play him at an older age. Cooper captures Bernstein's charismatic energy and creative mind so effortlessly, and gives the best biopic performance I've seen since Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. It's such a full-hearted performance, and undeniably one of the best leading performances of the year, if not the decade.

Carey Mulligan is also phenomenal, giving a career-best performance as Felicia Montealegre. Mulligan carries much of the emotional weight of the film, especially in the back half of the film, and she does so with aplomb. She also has such great chemistry with Cooper, and the scenes they share are electric. The romance is sweet, and effectively conveys the love between Bernstein and Montealegre. They have several tender moments together, but the moments where there is friction between the two are also compelling. Mulligan has several line deliveries in these scenes that feel like mic-drops, and they definitely took me aback a little. The lines themselves aren't necessarily cutting, but the way she says them is quite powerful. Her work in the second half is what most people will take away from the film, as she portrays Montealegre's health issues and conflicted feelings towards Bernstein so amazingly. Much like Cooper, the make-up helps with this, but Mulligan is so dialed in all throughout the film. Her performance is absolutely beautiful, and so deeply affecting. It's definitely some of her finest work, and left a huge impact on me.

It is very possible that Maestro reached me on a deeper level than it will reach most people, but even still, it is a spectacular technical achievement that is among the year's best crafted films. It is shot beautifully, edited nicely, and told in an intimate way that doesn't take away from the film's more grandiose style. It proves that Bradley Cooper has what it takes to be a great director, and his turn as Leonard Bernstein marks one of his best performances to date. Carey Mulligan also delivers some of her best work, and the two of them together certainly deserve a ton of praise. Maestro isn't your typical biopic, which might throw off some viewers, but that is part of why I love this film so much. It breaks convention, coming together as a symphony of memories from Bernstein's life, pulling back the layers of him as an iconic figure and honing in on him as a person. It may not be the end all, be all account of Leonard Bernstein's life and career, but I'd argue that what it actually is is far more intriguing, richer, and more potent than the average biopic. Maestro is absolutely breathtaking, and is such a gorgeous film that connected with me viscerally.

Rating: 5/5

Maestro is currently playing in select theaters and will premiere on Netflix on December 20th.

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