MAESTRO who is tone dead [REVIEW]

About Bernstein, one could have told in many ways, but the choice was made for a narrative of diffusion and purposelessness.

Katarzyna Kebernik

17 November 2023

The films about musicians devoid of ideas for utilizing music deserve a separate circle of hell. “Maestro” may not be an artistic failure, but it is certainly a mediocrity, belonging to my least favorite kind of Oscar bait – a dull biography of a great man with a star-studded cast. The film about Leonard Bernstein, directed by Bradley Cooper (who also plays the main character), painfully wastes the potential that the composer’s character holds, a man with a great legacy and a complicated personal life.

Bernstein’s story could have been told in many ways, primarily through the prism of his era and contribution to the history of film music. Those viewers who expect “Maestro” to provide a portrait of old Hollywood and reveal the stories behind famous soundtracks will be sincerely disappointed because there is almost no music in this film. It plays in the background, and we get one good scene of composing a mass at the piano and one outstanding scene of conducting an orchestra (the best thing about this film) – it’s not enough for a two-and-a-half-hour runtime. We also won’t learn what drove Bernstein to compose, why he chose film music, what inspired him, and how he developed his passion (the film begins at the moment of his first success). It’s a story of a man living with passion, shot without passion, in a textbook manner – a tale of a musician without rhythm and tempo. Despite the many beautiful shots and overall high-quality camerawork, in the face of overtalk and shallowness of the plot, the visual beauty seems to be merely art for art’s sake, creating an illusion that we are dealing with something deeper than it actually is.

The creators are more interested in Bernstein’s personal life: his relationship with his wife and hidden homosexuality. The problem is that they cannot characterize their protagonist in any way, give him personality and depth: justify why they chose to shoot his biography, what attracted them to his character. As a justification for his lack of presence in the film, Bernstein’s introversion is mentioned several times; he is portrayed as a person suppressing emotions. This is no justification: cinema has portrayed many cases of individuals living more internally than externally in an exciting way (A Beautiful Mind, A Quiet Place). And since Bernstein expressed himself primarily through music, the lack of music in this film seems even more unjustified. “Maestro” tells the story of its character, jumping from event to event, without any guiding thought. There is also the impression that the creators forcibly try to tarnish and vilify Bernstein, as if unable to find another way to make him interesting. Instead of showing the struggles of a homosexual living in a heterosexual relationship, we witness scenes of mechanical seduction of successive boys and cocaine use, devoid of deeper reflection and motivation.

Bradley Cooper clearly makes an effort in this film – you can see the effort put into reproducing Bernstein’s mannerisms and characteristic gestures. However, the lack of the creators’ idea for the character, as mentioned earlier, renders all the actor’s efforts futile. The artificiality and lack of depth in this portrayal are further deepened by the bizarre makeup. As the classic saying goes: an actor has only one face. Bradley Cooper, with a prosthetic nose, ears, and altered facial structure, does not look like Leonard Bernstein; he looks like Bradley Cooper with a prosthetic nose, ears, and altered facial structure. In the best moments, there is simply a feeling that something is off with the actor’s facial expressions, that he is oddly immobile. In the worst moments, he looks like a monster born on the set of “Your Face Sounds Familiar.”

Cooper’s efforts for an Oscar (which he undoubtedly aspires to with this role) will also not be helped by Carey Mulligan, who completely outshines him in terms of acting. Her role is the main reason why it’s still worth watching this film. As Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, the composer’s wife, she creates a poignant performance. Scenes with her are the most interesting; when necessary, she introduces charm and humor, and when necessary, sadness. She created the only fully realized character that we believe in and quickly start to feel sympathy and respect for. If the entire “Maestro” is artificial and exaggerated like Cooper’s characterization, Mulligan’s role is like a breath of life, like contact with a real person in this bizarre creation. And maybe that would be some idea for this film: to tell the story of Bernstein through the eyes of his betrayed wife, maintaining a lie for the common good and career (Felicia was a popular television actress).

“Maestro” did not tell me anything about who Leonard Bernstein was. Contrary to the quote from the composer that art should rather ask questions than provide answers, the creators did not prompt me to ask questions either. If anything, it led me to ask the worst kind of question: why was this film made at all?

Katarzyna Kebernik

Katarzyna Kebernik

She lives for reading, watching, listening and telling stories.

See other posts from this author >>>