In hindsight, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut “A Star is Born” served as the commercial tune-up that paved the way for “Maestro,” as both films deal with the price of art as well as loving an artist. The newer film follows the fact-based tale of conductor Leonard Bernstein, with beautiful performances by Cooper and Carey Mulligan anchoring a movie that’s not always easily accessible, but certainly far from shallow.
Before getting to the movie itself, a word about the controversy it triggered over the prosthetic nose that Cooper donned to better resemble his Jewish character. Despite the long history of actors doing that – and support from Bernstein’s family – to some, the stereotypical aspect of the image struck a nerve, though it’s a sensation that should quickly dissipate watching Cooper disappear into the role.
Ultimately, much of “Maestro’s” appeal has less to do with what’s seen by the eye than heard by the ear, using Bernstein’s music to set a mood and atmosphere while celebrating his artistry. Cooper goes the extra mile, in fact, to foster an appreciation for what a conductor does, capturing the way Bernstein threw the whole of his body and soul into the task, and the collateral damage from that creative explosion.
Bernstein is a promising young conductor when the film begins, which also finds him romantically involved with another man (Matt Bomer, as it happens currently playing a character dealing with similar issues of being gay in that era in Showtime’s “Fellow Travelers”).
Yet Bernstein appears swept off his feet when he meets a talented actress, Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan), embarking on a relationship that comes as something of a surprise to those around him, including his sister (Sarah Silverman).
Soon married with children, and famous enough to be interviewed on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person,” Bernstein continues to act on his attractions to men while a pained Felicia mostly looks the other way, except for those situations when he gets “sloppy,” as she puts it.
Through Felicia, and Mulligan’s pained expressions, “Maestro” thus becomes a story of sacrifices and compromises, and the extent to which Bernstein relied on her to nurture his musical genius, despite the emotional toll of his conflicting desires.
Cooper also shares screenplay credit with Josh Singer (“Spotlight” and the biographical “First Man”), and studiously replicates Bernstein’s staccato speaking style and deeply resonant voice, which has the musical cadence of a jazz riff. The first half of the movie unfolds in glorious black and white before abruptly switching to color, a device, along with the makeup, which cleverly sets the changing times.
For all that, the Bernsteins’ lives together, while dramatic, aren’t terribly eventful, which makes “Maestro” move to its own leisurely rhythms, a quality that might feel more pronounced when it transitions from theaters to its primary home on Netflix. Still, watching Cooper and Mulligan portray their characters across decades, it’s hard not to be impressed, while nurturing a greater appreciation for why Cooper found Bernstein’s contributions and complications deserving of such a tribute.
Produced by, among others, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, “Maestro” wears its award ambitions on its sleeve, and clearly benefits from the creative latitude Netflix’s hunger for such recognition allows.
Cooper and Mulligan’s work should be very much in those conversations, if not the movie itself. “Maestro’s” deeper contemplation of art won’t be for everyone, but Cooper has proved that his interest in exploring those issues is more than just the dabbling of another pretty face, whatever nose one chooses to put on it.
“Maestro” premieres November 22 in select theaters and December 20 on Netflix. It’s rated R.