2023 has been a year full of “great man” movies. From Ben Affleck’s “Air” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” to Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” and Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” cinemas have time and time again seen great men do great things, as they strive and struggle and ultimately, for the most part, succeed. “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s second directorial feature and follow-up to 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” is the newest addition to this collection.
The film made its debut at the Venice Film Festival in September, and following a limited theatrical release, arrived on Netflix on Dec. 20. In a self-conscious and shamelessly cinematic combination of black-and-white and color film, “Maestro” paints a portrait of the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, played by Cooper himself.
Though it opens with an interview with the elderly Bernstein, the film quickly flashes back to the beginning of his career — his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic. Through achingly beautiful, almost dizzying aerial shots and a sharp script rattled off at Sorkinist speeds, the audience is quickly thrown right into the cinema of it all. “Maestro” is fast and fiercely paced, barely taking a break during its first act until the introduction of Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s love interest and later wife, played by Carey Mulligan.
Early scenes — such as the meeting of Leonard and Felicia — are among the strongest of the film. Sparks instantly fly as the pair stand shrouded in shadow and cigarette smoke, shielded from the shouts and sounds of the fabulously Old Hollywood house party going on around them. Leonard tilts his head down to meet Felicia’s, and the rest is history.
Except there is much more to this history than just two people running hand in hand down the dusky streets of New York City. While the film’s promotional rollout — and Netflix logline — suggests a romantic drama, its plot aligns more closely with the traditional biopic mold, following Bernstein in flashes through significant moments in his life and career.
Many of these moments do involve Felicia Montealegre, mostly consisting of fast-paced, single-take conversations between the pair that highlight the ups and downs of their relationship. “Don’t forget you are a man,” she tells him during a particularly notable moment, to which he responds, “I never do.”
And he never does. Leonard is larger than life, and Felicia disappears as a result. That’s not to say that Mulligan’s performance is not outstanding — she shines in her scenes without him, but she is rarely ever without him, and thus is found more often than not standing literally, as well as metaphorically, in his shadow.
“Maestro” wants desperately to be about Felicia Montealegre, a story of the great woman behind every great man, but falls short of anything beyond a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing those who pursue greatness.
Though Leonard’s bisexuality is the root of much turmoil and tension within his and Felicia’s marriage, the film barely addresses her feelings on the subject. Indeed, the most direct and deepest addressment of his sexual identity comes in a conversation between Bernstein and his eldest daughter Jamie, played by Maya Hawke. Upon the latter’s confrontation concerning rumors of his affairs with both men and women, Bernstein vehemently denies such stories with an explanation that makes clear his inability to be open with himself, let alone with others.
It is a lack of openness, too, that ultimately limits what “Maestro” is able to achieve. The film opens with a quote by Leonard Bernstein — “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”
Yet what question does “Maestro” truly provoke? In his presentation of persona, Cooper takes few risks — barring, perhaps, his controversial use of prosthetics to facilitate his nasal transformation — and thus conducts a characterization with fairly little contradiction, preventing viewers from seeing beneath the surface of Bernstein the musician or even Bernstein the man.
Bernstein was, after all, just a man. In labeling Felicia as the linchpin of their love story, Cooper does his best to diverge from the ‘great man’ mold upon which films so often rely. Yet in doing so, “Maestro” attempts to be one thing when it could have more successfully achieved another, far more attainable one in the form of a more conventional biopic. Nonetheless, the film remains a spectacular directorial accomplishment, a worthy companion of “A Star is Born” and a fascinating addition to at-home streaming services this holiday season.