Maestro sees Bradley Cooper chasing Oscar glory as he assumes multiple roles in the creation of this film and the telling of Leonard Bernstein’s life story. His first directorial project since his debut with his A Star Is Born remake with Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper has gone the route of old Hollywood with his filmmaking and along the way it can’t help but feel like this project was done with awards contention in mind, as I’m sure like most of us Cooper still feels he was robbed of the Best Actor award for A Star Is Born. Does a more Oscar-baity film necessarily make a great film though?
Following the life of young composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper), we see how one fateful phone call changed his life when he finally got to conduct his first big show. From that point on, Bernstein would go on to create music for Broadway productions and conduct orchestras all over the world. He marries actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) and the two raise a family for decades despite Leonard always having an affinity for men as well as his wife. A complicated man, Leonard always led his life with love and achieved wonders while battling demons within himself.
Billed as the tale of Bersntein and Montealegre’s love story, Maestro felt largely unfocused when it came to the marital story and even though we’re supposedly learning mostly about Bernstein’s life, I still came away feeling like I didn’t really learn much. There are some terrific stretches of the film that rely on Cooper’s conducting abilities and while those moments are intense and fascinating, they’re too few and far between and sometimes the importance of those performances feels lost on the audience. There’s even a part of me that feels like the intense musical portions were more performative than imperative to the story, mostly showcasing Cooper’s ability to learn some conducting.
On the other side of the performative scale is Mulligan, who almost always brings the same level of dedication to each of her roles and really makes a lasting impression in Maestro. Playing the part of a woman who understands her husband’s genius more than any other, yet also must live with understanding his attraction to other people creates a ton of complex emotion that Mulligan masters so effectively. Her interactions with Cooper are good, but she shines independent of his performance and works incredibly well with the rest of the supporting cast.
Maestro is an engaging story that’s full of some great moments, but it fails to put all the dramatic pieces together to really end things with a bang. I still don’t entirely know what the audience was supposed to learn about Bernstein that went beyond surface level, but I certainly grew some appreciation for his talent after learning about his involvement with West Side Story. There are a number of questionable directorial choices that can only be boiled down to a focus on style over substance, making Maestro worthy of a view but keeping it far from most awards accolades (Mulligan excluded).
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