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NYFF Review: Maestro

Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan in The Maestro
Photo Credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

After delivering an Oscar-winning directorial debut with 2018’s A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper returns to helm Maestro, a biopic based on iconic American composer Leonard Bernstein that has tons of awards potential but lacks strong storytelling depth.

The film depicts the life of Bernstein (Cooper) as he rises to prominence after a successful composing position at the New York Philharmonic. However, the film puts a more direct focus on Bernstein’s marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) and it’s a big reason the film’s performances and emotions flourish. The early parts of the film establish a lovable charm and spark between Leonard and Felicia that feels real and touches on relatable artistic ambition. It’s so strong that their love almost feels like fate and it’s hard not to get swept up in their growing connection. Cooper and Mulligan are a dynamic pairing too and bring out feelings of love and aspiration that are irresistible. Plus, the choice of depicting Leonard and Felicia’s early years in black and white gives those scenes a fun, ’50s sitcom feel that’s fitting for the vibes of their relationship and somewhat acts as an ode to the era.

Yet, every aspect of the film starts to evolve as Leonard and Felicia’s careers and relationship change and it elevates nearly everything the film offers. Once Leonard quickly rises in the music world and feels his life being pulled in different directions, he becomes vastly more compelling. There’s a clear juggling act of his artistic brilliance and waning morality that causes fractures in his relationship with Felicia. Leonard’s bisexuality is an intriguing, intertwining aspect of his personal arc, as it plays a pivotal role in his mindset as he goes through an inner crisis and the ways his ego has a damaging impact. More importantly, Leonard’s story quickly becomes a tale of his brilliance simultaneously being a driving force and a toxic element of his life—specifically in his marriage to Felicia.

At times, Leonard’s uncanny ability to be charming and captivating in his music is so mesmerizing that you find yourself looking past or forgetting some of his wrongdoings. Many characters — including Felicia — give Leonard a pass for his distinct impact in music and undeniable allure. Cooper does such a great job highlighting this both in his performance and direction to emphasize how great talent can overshadow poor morality in the public eye. There’s one scene where this becomes particularly obvious to audiences as well, where Leonard conducts an orchestra at a church performance.

The vigor and sheer passion felt in Cooper’s performance is absolutely jaw-dropping. The way he captures this sequence unbroken is fantastic because you feel the complete atmosphere of the experience. Plus, the music really ramps up the emotive feel of the moment (especially since it was preceded by a heavy conversation with Felicia about Leonard) so you feel very connected to it. It’s a sequence that will literally take your breath away and embodies how the film gets viewers to confront their own perspectives on Leonard. It’s a cathartic tale about how we perceive greatness and let it dictate how we treat people even when they do something bad. It’s what makes Leonard’s story in the film so richly relevant, and Cooper’s performance matches the brilliance, ego, and charm of Leonard flawlessly.

He truly elevates the film every step of the way, in both his direction and performance, and captures the presence of Leonard Berstein perfectly for a career-defining performance. Cooper puts in a phenomenal effort that he’s certainly guaranteed to be involved in a lot of awards conversations — as does Mulligan. If anyone needed a reason to believe that Mulligan is one of the most talented people working in film today and didn’t care to look at the incredible last couple years of her career, then her performance in Maestro will definitely be convincing because she’s immaculate. The range she shows in making Felicia’s aspirations, frustrations, and perceptions immensely compelling is fantastic and her arc in the film is just as interesting as Leonard’s. Her performance embodies the second place feeling Felicia has in her relationship with Leonard and the growing frustration she has about finding her own individual power in this dynamic. Where Mulligan really brings this performance to its highest peak, though, is in the film’s devastating final stretch. Mulligan effortlessly evokes the palpable grief and gutting reality of Felicia’s situation in such powerful ways that audiences will be wiping away tears the whole way through. It’s just another prominent feather in Mulligan’s cap at this point and another instance of her deserving awards glory.

Unfortunately, the big thing that holds Maestro back from being a great experience through and through is its disjointed storytelling. While the opening and closing moments are perfect places to start and end Bernstein’s story and don’t feel typical for biopics, the story jumps around too much to the point where it feels like it’s missing context. The film constantly shifts between big moments to the point where several years can pass and it makes the pacing and structure a little messy. One second, we’re hearing Felicia talk to Leonard’s sister (Sarah Silverman) then the next we’re cutting to a performance. Transitions like that between scenes can be very jarring and cause the thematic and narrative connections to come off unclear in the moment. Most of the time, the themes and ideas eventually come together, but the storytelling is not as smooth or easy to follow as it could have been. Also, while there are some funny moments that come from Cooper and Josh Singer’s writing, there are scenes that feel unintentionally funny that disrupt the mood the scene is trying to evoke.

The disjointed storytelling of Maestro sadly stops it from being an all-around great follow-up for Cooper behind the camera, but it’s still an experience filled with award-worthy direction, performances, and themes that’ll capture the attention of audiences far and wide.

Maestro opens in select theaters on November 22nd and starts streaming on Netflix on December 20th.

Tom Moore
Tom Moorehttps://mooreviews.com/
Tom is always ready to see and review everything horrifying and hilarious that hits theaters, television, and video games...sometimes. You can check out his other reviews and articles on his blog, Mooreviews.

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