MAESTRO – Review by Diane Carson

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Maestro dramatizes Leonard Bernstein’s and Felicia Montealegre’s lives

In Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein comes most vividly and euphorically to life when he’s conducting. The same may well apply co-writer/director Cooper who so comprehensively embodies Bernstein that he all but jumps off the screen during performances. It is thrilling to experience Cooper channeling such rapture throughout his and wife Felicia Montealegre’s tangled theatrical lives.

Parallels also suggest themselves between Bernstein’s ingenious compositions and Cooper’s creative cinematic choices. In the first half of the film, cinematographer Matthew Libatique propels the camera through the air, jumping from match cut to match cut in thematically related scenes, all in gorgeous black and white. The second half of Maestro shifts to color and adopts a much less energetic, more staid style. There, long shots dominate, the camera often as distant from the characters as they are from each other, drifting apart emotionally. All smiles and giggles (a bit too much) in their initial love fest, Lenny (as he’s often called) and Felicia become increasingly estranged, a chill palpable in darker scenes. In one unedited long shot, their most raucous, bitter, stunning argument is ironically concluded as a huge Snoopy balloon floats by the room’s window.

Shot on location in Bernstein’s home, as well as other stately sites, including Ely Cathedral and Carnegie Hall, the environments enhance the disparate moods, from noisy parties to quiet theaters, orchestral rehearsals to playful abandon in the Bernstein’s gorgeous, lakeside home grounds. After beginning in color with a television interview of an elderly Bernstein at his piano, the narrative chronologically follows Lenny at twenty-five in 1943 to Felicia’s death in 1978 and after. Throughout, Bernstein’s uninhibited hedonism and untethered bisexuality receive gleeful, energetic expression through Cooper’s gleaming eyes. To her credit, Felicia is no naïve lover, explicitly saying she accepts Lenny for who he is, as long as possible.

Lenny and Felicia, a fine Costa Rican-Chilean-American actress, were a formidable pair. So too are Cooper and Carey Mulligan who pack a lot in to these two hours, including excerpts from On the Town, West Side Story, Young People’s Concerts, and orchestral ones. But their personal, strained relationship dominates, from Lenny’s unexpected early fame to their family, love to distress. Maestro is quite a ride and a powerful film.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.