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Review: 'Maestro'

Maestro might not be the movie you thought it would be.

In recent months, Bradley Cooper has been making the rounds being interviewed and showing clips from the film on just about every television channel and streaming service.

Initially, the interviews largely focused on the controversy about his prosthetic nose made to resemble the nose of the movie’s subject, conductor Leonard Bernstein. Later, after Bernstein’s children defended the fake nose as being accurate and not intentionally offensive, discussion eventually turned to Bradley Cooper’s longtime obsession with Leonard Bernstein and his burning desire to bring the famed composer/conductor’s story to the big screen.

The clips of Cooper’s Bernstein dramatically, almost convulsively conducting a symphony orchestra were electrifying. Maestro looked to be a standout biopic honoring and elevating Bernstein’s impressive body of work.

But then, brief mentions began popping up about Bernstein’s personal life and the fact that he was a gay man in an age that would not accept or tolerate gay sexuality.

Bernstein was a complicated man who married and had three children, and that his wife was always aware of his secret private life. The movie charts their complex relationship—involving her admiration, devotion and steadfast support, even when the maestro, in her opinion, became “sloppy” in his later years with occasional public displays of his homosexual behavior.

In the movie, she warns him that if he isn’t careful, he will eventually “die as a lonely old queen.” It was her attempt to preserve the legacy and public image of a man who was increasingly teetering on celebrity self-destruction.

As it turns out, Maestro, the movie, devotes more attention to Bernstein’s personal life and demons than his musical journey. Perhaps one of his most notable achievements was his score for the smash hit Broadway Musical (and Oscar-winning film) West Side Story, which is only mentioned in passing.

I have a lot of respect for Bradley Cooper, whose movies include: Wedding Crashers (2005), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), the Hangover trilogy (2009, 2011, 2013) and American Sniper (2014). More recently, he expanded his creative output with the remake of A Star Is Born (2018) which he directed and co-starred with Lady Gaga.

It was his work on that film that caught the attention of Steven Spielberg who was slated to direct the Maestro project until he saw Bradley Cooper’s directing talent in A Star Is Born and offered him the opportunity to direct.

Cooper not only directed and starred in Maestro, he also shares writing credits with Josh Singer. While his deep dive into the character of Leonard Bernstein is nothing short of remarkable, it is the writing and directing in Maestro that are perhaps the movie’s glaring weaknesses.

The movie is comprised of endless dialog in the form of chatter, banter and conversation, that never seems to really coalesce into a solid script. To be fair, the performances and the chemistry between Cooper and co-star Carey Mulligan (playing Bernstein’s devoted, long-suffering wife, Felicia Montealegre) are first-rate, with real depth and resonance. The problem is that the dialog never really builds to anything resembling a compelling narrative.

Technically, Maestro is a watchable film in terms of the nostalgic images and thunderous orchestral performances (though a few less than you might expect).

Curiously, Cooper’s directing style is reserved and minimalist. He often chooses to plant his camera at a distance and let scenes play out without close-ups or reversals. Other times he locks the camera down and does not provide the customary shot-reversal shot approach that we have come to expect. It’s either an attempt to be arty for the sake of breaking rules and being arty, or possibly the result of a tight budget and limited shooting schedule in which there wasn’t time or money to shoot tight shots or reversal shots. One never knows.

Whatever the reason, the approach draws attention to itself, which is never a good thing. The result is that some of the scenes appear to run noticeably long due to the absence of editing and shot changes. While it’s OK to occasionally break the rules in the world of filmmaking, it’s only advisable when breaking the rules has some sort of reason and somehow makes sense.

Actors sometimes want to ultimately become directors. It’s all about control. Some are better at it than others, Chaplin and Orson Welles come to mind. It’s a skill set that sometime takes time to master, unless you’re an out-of-the-box, native genius.

A parallel in the world of symphonic music might be that of making the jump from being one of the talented musicians seated on the stage to being the maestro standing on the podium, waving the wand and making the magic happen.

The movie Maestro is less about timeless magic than personal demons. It might leave audiences wondering whether it perhaps provided more detail than we really needed to know about Leonard Bernstein. A movie about his musical legacy might have been enough.

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