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Bradley Cooper's 'Maestro' fully captures Bernstein's charisma and complexity

Bradley Cooper plays composer Leonard Bernstein in <em>Maestro</em>.
Jason McDonald
Bradley Cooper plays composer Leonard Bernstein in Maestro.

We're in the thick of year-end movie season, or, as I've come to think of it, biopic season, when some of our finest actors line up to deliver their most Oscar-friendly feats of historical impersonation.

Right now you can see Rustinon Netflix, starring Colman Domingo as the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. This week also brings Joaquin Phoenixin Napoleon, and next month, keep an eye out for Adam Driver in Ferrari, playing the founder of the Italian sports-car empire.

One of this year's strongest biopics is Maestro, an exquisite new drama starring Bradley Cooper as the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote the movie with Josh Singer, gives a dazzling multi-decade arc of a performance.

We first see Bernstein near the end of his life, playing a somber piano piece from his opera A Quiet Place and remembering his late wife, the actor Felicia Montealegre. The movie then flashes back to 1943, when a 20-something Lenny makes his electrifying Carnegie Hall debut, guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic — his first step toward becoming the most famous conductor in American history.

Cooper captures Lenny's brilliant musical mind, his gregarious energy and his intense attractiveness to both men and women. Matt Bomer gives a brief but poignant turn as the clarinetist David Oppenheim, one of his many lovers. It's around this time that Lenny meets Felicia, who's just getting started as a New York stage actor; she's played, superbly, by Carey Mulligan.

This early stretch of the movie was shot in black-and-white by Matthew Libatique, whose marvelously fluid camerawork conveys Lenny and Felicia's boundless sense of possibility. One playful sequence uses a musical number from Bernstein's own On the Town to capture both Lenny's attraction to men and his very real feelings for Felicia.

In time, Lenny and Felicia marry, buy a house in Connecticut and raise three children; meanwhile, Lenny continues to have affairs. As the years pass, the black-and-white shifts to color and the once-freewheeling camerawork slows to a melancholy crawl. Even as Lenny's career flourishes, the cracks in his and Felicia's marriage are widening.

The beauty of Maestro is that it sees the complexity, the tragedy and the undeniable passion and tenderness of the Bernsteins' relationship. Crucially, it gives both leads equal dramatic weight; like Cooper's 2018 directing debut, A Star Is Born, this is a remarkably even portrait of a complicated showbiz marriage. It even strives for balance in the way it presents both characters as artists.

Unsurprisingly, the movie can only squeeze in a handful of Bernstein's creative highlights, whether it's dropping in a bit of the West Side Story score or a reference to his famously polarizing 1971 theater piece, Mass. But there are also glimpses of Felicia's acting career, including her appearance on the arts anthology series Camera Three, shortly before she's diagnosed with cancer.

Mulligan, who receives top billing, gives one of her best and most piercing performances. She fully captures Felicia's anger at her husband's philandering, her frustration at having to dwell in his artistic shadow, and her persistent love for him despite his exasperating flaws.

Cooper plays Lenny as a fount of energy, charming and irrepressible. At times there is something a little overly imitative about the actor's mannerisms, especially during Lenny's later years. But this is still a complex and persuasive performance; crucially, Cooper doesn't soft-pedal the character's selfishness or his failings as a husband and father.

When the trailer for Maestro was first released, there was controversy around Cooper's decision to wear a prosthetic nose, raising questions about, among other things, whether non-Jewish actors, like Cooper, should play Jewish characters. That debate won't be resolved here, but it's worth noting that Cooper employs many cosmetic enhancements to play Bernstein over roughly five decades, and his performance is too rich to be reduced to just one detail. In the end, we believe Cooper not just because of any physical resemblance, but because he so fully captures Lenny's charisma, the way his love for music and for people seems to flow out of him.

We don't see him do much actual conducting until late in the movie, when Cooper re-creates a famous 1976 Bernstein performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral. The piece is Mahler's Symphony No. 2, often known as his Resurrection Symphony — fitting for a sequence in which Bernstein, pouring sweat and waving his baton, really does seem to live again.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.