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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Maestro (2023) – Movie Review

Maestro, 2023.

Directed by Bradley Cooper.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Sam Nivola, Michael Urie, Gideon Glick, Miriam Shor, William Hill, Oscar Pavlo, Mallory Portnoy, Sara Sanderson, Kate Eastman, Vincenzo Amato, Greg Hildreth, Brian Klugman, Nick Blaemire, and Tim Rogan.


This love story chronicles the lifelong relationship of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein and actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein.

Incredible performances, astonishing makeup effects, artsy transitions for the passage of time, altered aspect ratios signifying crucial character details, sharp cinematography (including a black-and-white portion), and the music of composer Leonard Bernstein, the subject of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (the follow-up to his masterful debut, which was yet another remake of A Star is Born) complete with a showstopping centerpiece conduction ultimately can’t save this film from succumbing to the worst storytelling traits of a standard biopic.

Naturally, this is frustrating considering that Bradley Cooper (writing alongside isn’t just covered in makeup and prosthetics to make him look the part of Leonard Bernstein and resemble the proper age for that time in his life, but also convincingly speaks and acts the part. One has to actively try to see you through those stunning effects to catch a glimpse of Bradley Cooper’s face underneath it all. However, it disappointingly feels as if Bradley Cooper had no idea where to find the depth of the story he wanted to tell beyond some opening quote text and a vague, halfway committed, broad depiction of the composer’s depression despite being such a revered musician and the complications of his love life with Costa-Rican-Chilean Broadway actress Felicia Montealegre, played by an arguably even better Carey Mulligan.

One’s level of enjoyment of Maestro will almost certainly come from how far stellar mimicry performances of real-life personalities can carry a film for them. Some might become irritated that it devolves into the usual cliffnotes biopic formula. It all starts off promising, with cinematographer Matthew Libatique crafting some striking black-and-white shot compositions as Leonard Bernstein wakes up and answers a call, excitedly finding out that an acquaintance has fallen ill and that he will be called upon to conduct the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. As far as his career is concerned, the rest is history, going on to create the music for beloved cinematic classics such as West Side Story.

Leonard Bernstein takes that call while in bed with another man, revealing his bisexuality. If that wasn’t enough, the film is also shot in a boxed-in, portrait ratio to bludgeon the point home that, despite going on to marry Felicia, he lives a double life, having affairs with men and isn’t brave enough to live his truth. As such, Felicia appears to be more ticked off by that than the fact that he does have affairs. Compounding all of this is the pressure of fame that has rendered Leonard Bernstein a depressing void that sucks out the energy of the room, as Felicia describes it doing a heated verbal argument that stands as one of the film’s best scenes. As the two drift apart and become further estranged, the photography also begins to capture them from a distance.

After a reasonably breezy, beautifully shot black-and-white first act that barrels through the honeymoon stage of their falling in love and marriage, with creative transitions in between time frames, there is at least a vibrant, pulsating artistic sensibility to Maestro. For whatever reason, once the color kicks in, Bradley Cooper can’t help himself going down a familiar, formulaic path that takes a detour into terminal illness territory with Leonard sticking by Felicia’s side, repairing and empowering their fractured family. The more significant issue is that the story never allows itself to settle into a rhythm or one dynamic for too long, exploring hardly anything at all.

Carey Mulligan is exceptional in these scenes, especially during the marital turmoil section, where her hard stares say more than Bradley Cooper ever could from nailing someone else’s voice. There isn’t a false note in these performances, which carry Maestro to its corny crescendo (a particular song choice set to a dance followed by an aspect ratio shift is more eye-rolling than moving), but there is not much else going on underneath those makeup effects and spot-on voices. Yet Maestro is worth watching for those transfixing performances and top-notch below-the-line craftsmanship. But it’s safe to say Bradley Cooper spent too much time in the Shallow while putting Maestro together.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]

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