Leonard Bernstein was a wildly talented, larger-than-life conductor, composer, and teacher. His story could be told in a dozen different ways.
Bradley Cooper, director and star of the movie Maestro, chooses to focus on Bernstein’s personal life. At first I was skeptical of this approach, but finally I decided that it was a legitimate way to tell the story—certainly better than the kind of generic biopic so often done—and that Cooper tells it well.
As shown in the movie, Bernstein was established in his gay life before his wife-to-be Felicia (played movingly by Carey Mulligan) came along, and she decided she could rein in his male relationships enough to accommodate a family life.
Using the force of her personality and his obvious love for her, she tried to reengineer his relationships, and it never completely worked. She was frequently frustrated, as shown in one scene when she claimed that all his work was based on anger—classic projection, since clearly she was the one who was angry. The film shows, however, that on her deathbed Felicia took back the accusation, and that the two of them shared a deep love.
With that personal story as its anchor, Maestro does a good job of showing Bernstein’s many talents and his struggle to balance them. We see him in an extended scene as he conducts passages from Mahler. We hear excerpts from his theater and symphony compositions, which make up the film score. We see how, sadly, he looked down his nose at musical theater, a form in which I believe he was more talented, producing the scores for shows such as West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide.
As much as I liked the film, its title doesn’t fit, since Bernstein, of all conductors, was never thought of as Maestro. He was Lenny. The musicians called him that, and that’s how we come to know him over the course of this compelling story.
It seems to me there have been three great films this year: Maestro, Oppenheimer, and Killers of the Flower Moon. I recommend all of them.