Maestro (2023)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Director
Bradley Cooper
Run Time
2 hours and 9 minutes
Rating
R

VP Content Ratings

Violence
2/10
Language
2/10
Sex & Nudity
4/10
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

With upright heart he tended them
    and guided them with skillful hand.

Psalm 78:72
Leonard Bernstein was America’s first internationally acclaimed symphonic conductors. (c) Netflix

Don’t let the silly controversy over Bradley Cooper’s nose sour you on this magnificent depiction of an unusual marriage between two brilliant people. Whatever the merits of changing the actor’s Gentile nose into a Jewish one, Bradley Cooper is incredibly affective in his portrayal of America’s internationally acclaimed first great conductor. And Carry Mulligan as the Chilean-born actor Felicia Montealegre whom he marries, rises to his level of acting, especially in an emotionally stormy Thanksgiving Day scene.

Cooper, who directs and plays Leonard Bernstein, also co-wrote the script (with Josh Singer), so his depiction of the great musician as a conflicted, multi-layered man leaving a wonderful musical legacy to the world is deeply moving. So, also is Carry Mulligan’s as the actress who becomes his marital confidant while struggling with his bisexuality, knowing that his heart would never be devoted to her alone.

The film begins, in color, with the older Lenny playing the piano at his country home in Connecticut while he is being interview by a TV crew in which he admits to missing “her.” “Her” is Felicia, his late wife and soul-companion who had a huge impact upon him and his career. The film quickly jumps back to November 14, 1943 in his loft apartment when the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic is informed that he must substitute for guest conductor Bruno Walter because the latter is ill. Lighting up a cigarette, as much as a trademark with him as it was with Edward R. Murrow, the popular TV commentator who will later interview him, Lenny springs out of the bed that is also occupied by his current lover, David Oppenheim (Matthew Bomer), a clarinetist. Time is so short that he has to mount the podium without a rehearsal. However, he is already such an accomplished conductor that the program is a triumph. Lenny is now the toast of the town, soon becoming a rockstar in the world of classical music. To mention the title of Cooper’s first film, “a star is born.” And what a star!

We are shown nothing of this performance—indeed, those hoping to hear generous doses of the composer’s great music might be disappointed, because the script is true to its title; it is not Maestro’s Music. We do hear a little of Westside Story, just mentions of the play’s title and a snatch or two of melodies. Instead, the film shows us the three dancing sailors from his 1944 ballet Fancy Free that became the full Broadway musical On the Town. In a delightful fantasy Lenny himself becomes one of the sailors, perhaps emphasizing how fully he poured himself into his works.

At a party hosted by his sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman) he meets Felicia Montealegre. She proves a good match to his wit and shares his intellectual interests. (One of the latter, a commitment to social justice issues is left out of the film.) Although in Manhattan society of the 50s gay men would marry a woman who served as a “beard” for public appearances, their marriage is not for show. They are passionately in love, but for Lenny, theirs is not an exclusive relationship. In one party scene when Felicia spots her husband holding hands with a younger man, she does not make a scene or even call him on it. However, she shows on her face the deep hurt she is experiencing.

Leonard is drawn to Felicia at his sister’s party. (c) Netflix

There will come a time when Felicia does let out her feelings. But it will be after years of bearing and raising their children. During those early years she keeps Lenny’s secret from their offspring. One of the saddest scenes in the film is when their oldest daughter hears at school a rumor about her father, and Felicia tells him he must talk to her about it, but do not tell her the truth. Holding his troubled daughter in his arms, he assures her that the rumor is false. Although my first impulse was to criticize him for lying, this was quickly replaced by sorrow at how strong the pressure from a homophobic culture upon LGBTQ was+ people to stay in the closet—and my church at that time was a booster of homophobia!

To a lesser extent than his bisexuality, Bernstein straddles two worlds of music that sometimes disdained the other. His mentor at Tanglewood, Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov), a great conductor in his own right, urges him to give up writing show business music—Bernstein’s On the Town had been a big hit on Broadway. Fortunately for the world, Bernstein resists such pressure—can you imagine the world without Wonderful Town or Westside Story?

As the years pass, Felicia cannot let pass the infidelities of her husband. Also, his use of drugs and overindulgence in alcohol affects their relationship. When she can contain her painful feelings no more, she blurts out, “There’s a saying in Chile about never standing under a bird that’s full of shit. And I’ve just been living under that f–king bird for so long, it’s actually become comedic.”

On a Thanksgiving Day while we can see the tops of the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons passing by the windows of their sumptuous Central Park West home, she unleashes a harsh torrent of resentful words that must have cut the Maestro to the core. All the pent-up fury pours over Lenny, she declaring that he will die “a lonely old queen” and that he has “hate in his heart” if he keeps up his behavior. One of the balloons passing by outside is the huge Snoopy balloon, a favorite of their family, but one they will miss this time around.

Her harsh words result in their emotional separation, but not a divorce. Lenny composes his marvelous Mass in 1971, and then, in the film’s longest musical segment, he conducts Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in England’s Ely Cathedral. I read somewhere that Bradley Cooper spent about six years in learning the art of conduction so as to make this over six-minute segment as authentic as possible. It is an incredibly powerful depiction, even better than the conducting scenes in Tar. (Remember Lydia Tar in that film claims to be a friend of Bernstein’s.) This scene alone makes the film a “must see.”

Felicia is in the wings when he finishes, and he ignores the tumultuous roar of the audience’s enthusiastic approval to embrace her. She is so moved that she tells him, “There is no hate in your heart.” It is obvious that this means more to him than the loud applause and cheers of his adoring fans.

During the sad sequence dealing with Felicia’s cancer diagnosis and her struggle that ends in her death in 1978, no spouise could have had a more tender and faithful supprt.  Afterwards, he and the children move out of their lavish home, so filled with memories, and Lenny is shown in 1987 teaching adoring students at Tanglewood the art of conducting, and at parties bestowing favors upon some of his male ones.

The film does not judge the great composer/conductor for his unconventional lifestyle. It presents him as a most complex, layered human being overflowing with energy and talent that could not be contained. Bradley Cooper celebrates Bernstein’s prodigious talent that has added so much to our cultural heritage, But, he celebrates even more the stressed. But loving relationship of the unconventional pair. Leonard’s star shines brighter than Felicia’s, but a search of the internet will show that Felicia Montealegre was not some minor starlet. She was an accomplished figure in both the theater and prestigious television dramas. It was a talented artist who captured his heart but could not fill all of the needs of a man drawn to both sexes.

It was difficult to find a Biblical verse for this film. The ancient writers would not have considered Leonard Bernstein a righteous man, though they might have stood in awe of his talent and leadership skills. I think the last verse of Psalm 78 fits this man affectionately known as Lenny. The psalmist was writing about Israel’s favorite King, David—who remember, was a skilled musician, reputed to be the author of many of the Psalms. Standing before more than 50 musicians, Lenny too had “a skillful hand,” drawing out of them music fit for the gods. Whether or not he had an “upright heart,” you can decide. But maybe we should remember, even David, the most cherished of Israel’s kings, gave in to his passion for Bathsheba, leading to just as much entanglement in deceit as Leonard Bernstein did. Actually, it was more—Bernstein merely deceived his daughter about his sexuality, whereas David tried to deceive the whole nation.

One wonders—how much more might Leonard Bernstein have flourished today when homosexuality is more widely accepted?

This review will be in the January issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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