REVIEW: ‘Maestro’

Everything interesting about Leonard Bernstein is not in this movie

Bradley Cooper in 'Maestro' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
December 22, 2023

Leonard Bernstein may have been the greatest American cultural creation of the 20th century. I don’t mean that he was the greatest creator of culture, because he was not—for while he certainly composed wonderful show tunes, he was also the author of operas, masses, oratorios, and symphonies generally considered mediocre even at the height of his fame. As an orchestra conductor, he remains esteemed for his championing of Gustav Mahler but not all that much else.

And yet he became the most famous conductor the world has ever known or likely will ever know, and perhaps the most famous American composer qua composer as well. That fame has only deepened in the three decades since his death and his canonization in the new movie Maestro, now out on Netflix starring, cowritten, and directed by Bradley Cooper. The movie accepts without question that Bernstein was a towering genius. Why?

Bernstein was a four-quadrant star. He wrote hit songs and shows. That wouldn’t have been enough to make him a household name, but then he also conducted America’s most famous orchestra, wrote books, and gave lectures. Add all of that to the fact that he was an early superstar of television beginning in the 1950s, hosting programs for kids and adults about the glories of classical music heavily promoted by the so-called Tiffany Network, CBS, and you had a legend on your hands.

And boy, did he ever play the part. After ascending the podium with his baton in tow like a magic wand, right there through your cathode ray tube, Bernstein would direct his orchestra by tossing his shock of hair and twisting his face about and bouncing on his heels like the virtual ball in a game of Pong. For someone essentially leading the tempo and measuring impact of 50 other musicians, he made it look like he was doing all the work, sweating like he was carrying a grand piano single-handed up a flight of stairs. You looked at him more than you listened to the music, delivering a performance of raw intensity that seemed influenced less by Mahler than by the gut-instinct Method acting made legendary by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (a film with a score by, yes, Leonard Bernstein).

Cooper offers a 10-minute example of this performance style two-thirds of the way through the movie, in a self-consciously bravura scene in which Bernstein is shown conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony in a British cathedral. It’s filmed as a "one-er," as though you are seeing it live in a single take, though you are not. You’re supposed to gasp and wonder at the channeling of this long-dead Great Artist, the merger of Bradley and Lenny into a single phenomenon. But for me, watching Bernstein today conducting at the Ely Cathedral on YouTube and watching Cooper in Maestro, it’s a little hard not to giggle. Both of them look like nothing so much as Bugs Bunny channeling Bernstein’s florid predecessor Leopold Stokowski in the Looney Tunes masterpiece "Long-Haired Hare." They are human cartoons of over-enthusiasm, trying to make you think what you’re watching or seeing is exciting and demanding your attention and applause. The sequence is meant to portray Bernstein as the embodiment of the American artiste—and as such is the final element in the grand cultural effort that should be known as the Leonard Bernstein Project.

For it very much was a Project, a conscious Project, and a wildly successful one too. As Humphrey Burton details in his extraordinary 1994 biography, the idea that Bernstein should become the great figure in American classical music was literally a plan hatched in part by his friend (and lover) Aaron Copland in the late 1930s, when Bernstein was barely 20 years old.

The plan was for him to be "the great American conductor," and every aspect of his public actions in the five decades that followed was in service of that aim and the larger goal of establishing America as the cultural master of the world. To that end, he was invited to give highly distinguished lectures at Ivy League universities about his theory of music, which read like gibberish today—he sought to provide a "grammar of music" based on Noam Chomsky’s then-canonical but now-discredited theory of grammar. But he was protected from some of the consequences of his own moderate intellectual gifts by believing in the Right Things as the cultural commissars of the day defined them.

Bernstein was one of the key markers of the moment in time when America took unambiguous control of center stage in the West. He mixed popular culture, middlebrow culture, a now sadly anachronistic hip-Jew culture, glamor, riches, fame, trendy progressive politics, and (at a key moment when his star seemed to be dimming) out-of-the-closet gay culture in a resonant and enduring stew.

He was a remarkable presence in American life, suggestive not only of the country’s wild 20th century ambitions but also of the temptations and corruptions laid out in his path. Like almost everyone else in New York cultural circles, he fell in line when Vietnam-era politics went from liberal to radical, exalting criminality and the enemies of America even as he drank deep the dregs of American liberality and capitalist largesse.

No one forced him to host "That Party at Lenny’s," as Tom Wolfe originally called his deathless essay "Radical Chic," when Bernstein and his glam wife Felicia brought New York society together with the Black Panthers in 1970. One of the Panthers answered a question from Bernstein by advocating Communist revolution: "If business won't give us full employment," he said, "then we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people." Bernstein’s answer, as he sat comfortably in his Park Avenue duplex: "I dig, absolutely." It was like Bobby Brady saying "groovy." In her own memoir, Bernstein’s daughter Jamie says her mother never recovered from the embarrassment of having been made fun of by Tom Wolfe, but it barely seemed to give Lenny pause. He was, like all American dynamos, unembarrassable.

Now that is an interesting story. It is not, however, the story Cooper and his cowriter, Josh Singer, tell in Maestro. This is a movie as fancy and glittery and surface-dazzling as Bernstein himself. But in the end, that is all it is when it comes to its portrait of an American artist. For it tells you nothing about Bernstein other than that his father was cruel to him, nothing about the American culture he played like Michael Jordan, and very little about the life and times he lived through (the Black Panther party is not in the movie at all) other than the wardrobe and fashion changes he underwent from 1940 to 1990.

In the end, this is a movie about the spiritual and emotional disappointment of a formidable young woman who marries a gay man who can’t keep it in his pants. Carey Mulligan plays Felicia Montealegre, a young actress who meets Bernstein in the first flush of his success and marries him knowing that his tastes are more homosexual than bisexual. She is the beating heart of the movie, every flicker of anger and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak registering on her face as though Mulligan were Lillian Gish and this were a silent movie directed by D.W. Griffith. The performance is the hammiest piece of underplaying in film history.

But given that Felicia's problem is a politically incorrect one—by which I mean she is upset her husband is gay and you’re not supposed to be upset anyone is gay any longer—the movie actually turns her into the voice of reason when it comes to being your true self. In one of the strangest flourishes in the movie, she basically talks Lenny into breaking up their marriage by telling him that he is full of anger and rage and that he will never be happy because he is not being honest. In the wittiest touch in the movie, in the middle of this raging fight, the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York is taking place and the top half of the Snoopy balloon passes by the Bernstein bedroom windows (they lived in the Dakota, the apartment building on Central Park West that looks directly out on the parade route).

I don’t know if anyone watching this thing will understand what on earth is going on in this scene because it’s never explained or understood or established that they live in the Dakota or even (all that clearly) that’s it’s Thanksgiving. Now, I know they lived there, where it is, and why Snoopy might go by their window. But what person in Middle America watching this on Netflix will have the least clue what is going on here?

The same is true of the movie’s opening sequences, which show Bernstein’s journey into showbiz stardom as the author of the score of a famous Jerome Robbins ballet called Fancy Free that then became the hit musical On the Town. At one point, as he and Felicia are courting, they somehow end up in a fantasia in which they are separated by the dancers in Fancy Free, with Lenny eyeing and dancing with a hunky sailor while Felicia looks on dolefully. Again, I know about the ballet and show, but do you? Does it matter? I’m not sure. It’s all very trippy and beautifully filmed. Cooper is going all out here, trying to establish himself as something of a visionary, though he did a much better and more powerful job with his debut film, A Star Is Born, five years ago. But it all comes across like he’s a hyperactive kid demanding that we look at him this way, and then that way, and then the other way.

He tries to mimic everything about Bernstein, which led to hours every day in the makeup chair turning himself unrecognizable. Unfortunately, his effort to capture Bernstein’s voice ends up sounding less like Lenny and rather more like Robert Evans, the movie producer whose spoken version of his own The Kid Stays in the Picture remains the high-water mark of all autobiographical audiobooks.

There’s one line here I’ll never forget, because he sounds so much like Evans and the line is so peculiar. "Who left the Snoopy in the vestibule?" Cooper says as he enters the apartment for the Thanksgiving fight with his wife, holding a stuffed toy. Vestibule? Seriously? Cooper wants to sound cultivated, but in the end, he sounds Evanated.

This is one of those movies about fancy New York cultural and intellectual types whose writers and directors seem to think such people speak without using contractions and discuss things in high-flown and arch ways using five-dollar words. Trust me when I tell you this is not how they talk. They are not self-conscious about language and do not use it in a highfalutin manner; if anything they have a horror of sounding pretentious. It is true, though, that when they want to seem as though they are au courant, they often descend into self-parody. That’s where Bernstein’s "I dig" came from. The fact that Cooper didn’t have the wit to include the side of Bernstein’s character and personality where he was a little less than a maestro and rather more like a buffoon may be the key reason his movie is bad.

Maestro is streaming on Netflix.

Published under: Movie Reviews , Music