28 Nov 23
Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman
In 1973, Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler's Second Symphony, Resurrection, at Ely Cathedral. The performance was recorded, showing Bernstein's visceral connection to the music as the orchestra and choir reach the most overwhelming climax ever composed.
In Maestro, Bradley Cooper brilliantly restages this moment with meticulous detail, emulating the great conductor's sweat-spilling gesticulations as he pours out his soul. It is a scene that could only be directed and performed by someone whose connection to Bernstein is as intimate as Bernstein's was to Mahler.
Maestro is Cooper's passion project. The follow-up to his 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, this is Cooper pulling out all the stops, with endorsement from the Bernstein estate and producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Just as it is impossible to define Bernstein as a conductor or a composer, the line is blurred between Cooper as the actor playing Bernstein and as the director of the picture. For much of Maestro it is quite possible to forget that it is Cooper rather than Bernstein himself. It is an exceptional biographical performance, conveyed with the utmost empathy.
Joining Cooper as Bernstein's wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein, is Carey Mulligan, who beautifully conveys her character's restraint as her husband's affairs with men develop over time.
Their budding romance is told through magical monochrome flashback, recalled through the elderly Bernstein's rose-tinted spectacles as he whisks her into the concert hall to stage a dream ballet of his early acclaimed works, including the musical Fancy Free. Cooper elegantly navigates the transition from black-and-white to Technicolor, sprinkling a bit of "Glitter And Be Gay" into Bernstein's later life.
As astonishing as Matthew Libatique's cinematography is, crafting impossible movements between spaces while setting up painterly tableaux elsewhere, it is the music that stands above everything.
With only a smattering of works by other composers, much of the film's soundtrack comes from Bernstein's own pen, weaving recordings of his film scores for On The Waterfront and West Side Story, orchestral works like his second "Kaddish" symphony and choral masterpieces, including the Chichester Psalms, into the very fabric of the film. Cooper is able to put us as close to the mind of a musical genius as the medium of cinema allows, using the music to guide the film's ebb and flow.
Maestro is a far cry from the year's other Mahler- focused masterpiece, Todd Field's TÁR, starring Cate Blanchett as the eponymous conductor, although it also questions abuses of power in the classical music world. It is far less austere, instead relishing its lavish, romantic swells – just as Bernstein did in his conducting.
Cooper and Mulligan make for a powerhouse couple, capably supported by Maya Hawke as their daughter, Jamie, and Sarah Silverman as Bernstein's sister Shirley.
This is classic Hollywood filmmaking, demanding a ready openness of mind, heart and ears. Cooper is clearly on a mission to convert a new audience to fall in love with Bernstein's music and his recordings, and with them placed centre stage in a loud cinema, it's hard to imagine anyone resisting.
Maestro is a bold continuation of Bernstein's legacy and a testament to Cooper's power as both director and actor. Lillian Crawford
Bradley Cooper has yearned to be a conductor all his life. After receiving a Christmas present of a baton as a child, he would often conduct his invisible orchestra to one of his favourite pieces, Tchaikovsky's Opus 35 in D Major.
Cooper was given the script by Steven Spielberg for consideration as an acting role. When Spielberg passed on the project as a director, a screening of A Star Is Born convinced him Cooper was the right man for the job. He offered Cooper the job 20 minutes into the screening.
The make-up for Maestro was provided by two-time Academy Award winner Kazu Hiro, a recommendation to the production by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. As an actor, Cooper would have to arrive on set six hours before the rest of the crew to have the prosthetics applied.
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