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Bradley Cooper's sophomore effort about the legendary Leonard Bernstein isn't the most remarkable biopic you'll see all year, but you'll be stunned by his and Carey Mulligan's performances.
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Not since Ben Affleck has Hollywood been eager to see what comes next for an actor-turned-director. The actor in question is Bradley Cooper, who came swingin' with his second film, “Maestro.” His directorial debut, “A Star Is Born,” in which he also acted, astonished audiences in 2018. Honestly, I'm one of the few who didn't include it in their top 10 of the year. Nonetheless, his remake of the musical drama showed immense potential in terms of what he could achieve in front of and behind the camera. We were all wondering what he would do next. So, it's a partial surprise that his sophomore effort would be about another tender love story, except it's centered on a real-life musician in the realm of orchestral music.
In "Maestro," Cooper portrays one of the most influential American composers of all time, Leonard "Lenny" Bernstein. We first see the conductor/composer get his big break at 25 years old after he receives a call saying he’ll be a last-minute replacement for Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. He had no rehearsal time or preparation for what was to come. Luckily, it was nothing but a success, starting a long-lasting career as one of the most prominent American composers intentionally.
While at a fancy cocktail party, the stars aligned for Lenny when he met Chilean-Costa Rican actress Felicia Montealegre-Cohen (Carey Mulligan). They seemed instantly charmed by one another, falling in love and leading to a marriage lasting 27 years and three children. As their respective careers take off better than they ever imagined, he keeps quiet about his bisexuality over the years, which has put a strain on their long-lasting relationship.
What did I know about Bernstein before walking into "Maestro?" Only his name, especially since I never liked listening to classical music as a kid. He wrote the scores "West Side Story," "On The Town," and "On The Waterfront.” And funny enough, he was mentioned in R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." It’s wild to learn producers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were planning to tell Berstein’s story, and it wasn’t until the former saw a screening of "A Star Is Born" that he realized Cooper was the right man to make it happen. While it would’ve been amazing to see what Spielberg would’ve done in another universe, Cooper hasn’t lost his touch as a filmmaker when centering on a figure that’ll be a welcoming introduction for those unfamiliar with him.
On the surface, I can easily describe the movie as a biopic primed for awards voters. But under Cooper's guidance, “Maestro” shows us the significance of not only Bernstein but also shedding light on Felicia's personality and class in a manner reminiscent of "The Theory of Everything." This covers the years spent in his personal life and the achievements he made for himself while stepping inside an ego looming over his presence. Cooper's confidence in his directing was unquestionable, providing a much more flashy approach than we had previously that I didn’t see as style over substance.
Cooper’s charismatic portrayal of the conductor adds another fantastic performance to his filmography, capturing the man’s unique mannerisms and voice (mostly from chain-smoking), which he must have studied forever to nail. As a man who loves his music and those around him, what does it all mean in the end with what matters most? Almost everything he has done shows his range in whatever genre comes to him. Cooper was channeling his portrayal, becoming almost unrecognizable underneath some impressive makeup work courtesy of Kazu Hiro.
There's been controversy over using a prosthetic nose and how it might be offensive. I got used to it just fine, where it didn’t seem like a big deal to overshadow the film itself, although it could distract others. Besides that, you can tell he went all out into making this performance a symphony of his own.
However, Mulligan outperformed her co-star in the role of Felicia. Even though she has always been a superb performer, the connection between her character and Lenny was undeniably intense, with their support to each other in their fields to when she was sadly diagnosed with lung cancer. From the first ten minutes of their relationship, they almost immediately fall into a constrained but ultimately charming romance that causes heartbreak. But when the film didn’t give me that emotional attachment I hoped for, it happened near the end. She'll receive her third Best Actress nomination, joining "An Education" and her best work to date in "Promising Young Woman." Some believe she has a chance of winning. She might have a chance, but I have yet to see everything else to see who would try to creep up on her.
Aside from the acting, there’s so much love to say about the style on display. Matthew Libatique’s eye for beautiful camerawork through his cinematography gives the story an authentic ‘40s feel for the era when shooting the first act in 1.33 black-and-white before seamlessly switching into color in 1:85:1, elevating some glorious moments when moving through Berstein’s life.
You can take these smaller, intimate moments to heart, whether on a basement stage or having a picnic in the park, which makes "Maestro" an almost meditative experience to settle into. Two scenes were still in my mind the day after. An argument in their Dakota apartment on Thanksgiving day, shown in a wide shot, and letting the scene play out, adding a Snoopy balloon outside to break the tension afterward. The second and most memorable sequence comes from Bernstein conducting Mahler's "Symphony No.2" inside a Cathedral. Watching as if you were entirely immersed in the same crowd as everyone else was thrilling. Knowing Cooper spent six years preparing for those six minutes was more powerful to witness than what I saw last year with "Tár."
Somewhere in the script by Cooper and screenwriter Josh Singer, though, it’s missing an element to make it hard-hitting on an emotional level, and it might be a problem for those expecting this to have that emotional punch throughout once it goes through time. The first half-hour took its time, though it will struggle to build up their romance, and it’s not always easy to go over every facet of a person’s life within two hours. And while it kept the engagement further, you realize the storytelling sometimes needs to find more depth in their relationship, wondering what happened between passing years, such as wanting more of Matt Bomber as David Oppenheim since that development quickly gets dropped and doesn’t get mentioned later on.
Overall, "Maestro" can appear as another biopic. Still, it proves Bradley Cooper’s skills as a filmmaker haven’t worn themselves out, especially when he came through on another fantastic performance from him paired with Carey Mulligan to craft an elegant and personal story of a composer and his love. Compared to "A Star Is Born," his first feature holds better upon rewatch. With awards season in full swing, we could look at multiple Oscar nominations in what might be the streaming service’s biggest contender this fall.