Hollywood has had a very spotty record in telling the complete truths of some of our great musical geniuses. 1946’s Night And Day, an attempted, but really fictionalized, biopic on the life of Cole Porter with Cary Grant, totally ignored his real life homosexuality as well as sham marriage. That is just one example. The latest in the genre, Maestro having its World Premiere tonight at the Venice Film Festival, does not attempt to be a biopic at all on the great Leonard Bernstein, but instead puts its key focus on the relationship and 25 year marriage of Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein, a star in her own right on the Broadway stage. All of it is presented including bringing up their three children – Jamie, Alexander, Nina – as well as Bernstein’s own bisexuality and attraction to younger men, not a secret to his wife.
It is a fascinating portrait Bradley Cooper (who is star, director, co-writer, and a producer) paints and a choice that seems inspired. This is a complex story of a man who can’t quite define the intersection of his art and personal life but seems to thrive on the ambiguity, a bigger than life and towering personality not at all sugar coated in this compelling take. Cooper’s vision has been endorsed by the famed conductor/composer’s still-living three kids and that says a lot because this is far from a Hollywoodized homoginized story of their father and mother (brilliantly played by Carey Mulligan) told right from their first meeting in 1946 (very ironically the same year the fake Cole Porter movie hit screens) all the way to their long and complicated marriage, her death, and his final years.
Again though Cooper clearly had no interest in a soup-to-nuts look at the life of Leonard Bernstein, it was instead the life force that made him the complicated genius and complex husband and father that he was. This is only Cooper’s second outing as a director after 2018’s hit A Star Is Born, but it is the work of a very assured filmmaker bringing a strong vision to the screen. Interestingly the sumptously produced and long gestating film was originally going to be a directing vehicle for Martin Scorsese, and then Steven Spielberg – both remain as producers – but seems almost fated to land in Cooper’s hands not only as its title star, but in its writing (collaborating with initial writer Josh Singer) and director.
The first 45 minutes are in a old fashioned 1:33 aspect ration and shot on film in black and white. Matty Libatique is the extraordinary cinematographer. It covers the early years of the mid-40’s and 50’s, including the Bernsteins appearance on Edward R. Murrow’s live CBS series in which we see them interact in a controlled way TV was used to present the private lives of public people. But also, almost from the film’s beginning, we see Cooper has no intention of hiding anything, as an early romp in bed with a male lover shows, and in particular zeroing in on his relationship with a young colleague (Matt Bomer) with whom he also has a deep, if frustrating relationship.
There are also the scenes detailing his earlier career triumphs, some of them basically glossed over in re-created interviews Bernstein had given, others like the 1949 movie musical On The Town that is turned into a fantasy sequence where Cooper as Bernstein dons a sailor suit and becomes one of the dancers in a production number. Milestone projects like Wonderful Town, West Side Story, his long running young person’s musical TV series, his stunning score for 1954’s Best Picture winner On The Waterfront, get brief mentions but significantly turn up in other more inventive ways than “this is what Leonard Bernstein did next” linear style of biopics that Maestro is defiantly not. In fact a key musical moment from West Side Story becomes the musical underscore for a totally unrelated scene set at Tanglewood (the film was shot in many of the actual locations Bernstein lived and worked).
Eventually, just as you are thinking Cooper has decided to present this story entirely in black and white, the palette turns to vivid color, the Tonys Emmys and Grammys are seen on a shelf in a crowded party at the house and we know we have entered a different era. The aspect ratio also switches to 1:85:1 and the drama heats up, most notably on a Thanksgiving Day celebration that turns into a raging argument between Lennie and Felicia in their New York apartment against an almost surreal background of a giant Snoopy balloon drifting by in the Macy’s parade. It is an example of Cooper’s ingenuity staging a key moment like that, but filling the frame with something else entirely. It is also an example of the power of these two actors to completely hold our attention in a riveting snapshot of their complicated union.
Among the many musical highlights is one set in a London Cathedral where Bernstein is seen conducting an intense classical piece. It is utterly thrilling to watch Cooper embody the complete physicality and intensity this man put into his musical work, truly awesome and Cooper, who had been obsessed with conducting even as a young kid, clearly put everything he had learned about the Bernstein heart and soul into this performance. The music, and the way it is used throughout is a star player itself, certainly a reason to see this film in a theatrical setting with state-of-the-art sound systems, even if it eventually is going to be streaming on Netflix. The sound mixing work , along with other production aspects are top notch. These include Kevin Thompson’s production design, Mark Bridge’s ever-changing costume design, Michelle Tesori’s editing, and especially two-time Oscar winner Kazu Hiro’s superb and flawless prosthetic make up work for Cooper’s Bernstein. You can see Bradley Cooper in there but his transformation into this musical giant is something to behold.
The supporting cast includes Sarah Silverman as his sister Shelley, Maya Hawke as daughter Jamie, especially in one key scene she has with her dad, Sam Nivola as son Alex, and a nice if too brief turn by Bomer early on. Still this show really belongs to both Cooper and Mulligan and they prove to be just the right actors to take it on. It would be worth the price of admission just for the music, but the sharp dramatic focus on the iconic life behind all of it makes it memorable, and a film that meets its subject head on.
Producers are Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Fred Berner, Amy Durning, and Cooper.
Festival: Venice Film Festival
Release Date: November 22, 2023 in select theatres; December 20, streaming
Director: Bradley Cooper
Screenplay: Bradley Cooper, Josh Singer
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Josh Hamilton, Sam Nivola
Running Time: 2 hours and 9 minutes