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With Maestro, his new Netflix biopic about composer Leonard Bernstein, Bradley Cooper (the co-writer, co-producer, director, and star of the film) received many rave reviews, positioning himself as a top-tier filmmaker. At a recent screening during the 2023 Philadelphia Film Festival, it was also clear that many in attendance knew and loved Cooper’s Philly-area history.
Local connections abound for this film. Cooper grew up in Abington and neighboring townships near Philadelphia. He attended Germantown Academy (recently back in town for his class of 1993 reunion) and Villanova University. Bernstein himself lived on Walnut Street, a few blocks west of Rittenhouse Square, while he was a student at the Curtis Institute. And Cooper chose Yannick Nézet-Séguin, famed conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as musical consultant and conductor (though Cooper himself conducts a small segment of the score, which features works by Bernstein).
I attended Bernstein’s last concert at Tanglewood in 1990. He was 72, suffering from respiratory illness, and soon to die. But he conducted beautifully despite requiring help to leave the stage. Afterward, many in the audience shed tears, as if they knew it was the last goodbye to a family member or close friend.
The life of Lennie
This film follows Bernstein’s life and work, his coming out as gay, and especially his loving but troubled relationship with his wife, the Costa Rican/Chilean pianist and actor Felicia Montealegre. But it also has the fast-moving energy of a war film because Bernstein led a warrior-like and rapidly unfolding life as a world-traveling composer, conductor, educator, TV and media personality, husband, and father. Cooper gives (in the words of T.S. Eliot) “not less than everything” to infuse believability, passion, and truth into conceiving, casting, directing, and becoming Bernstein, an astonishing man whom everyone came to know as Lennie.
The film opens with Bernstein as a conducting and composition student at Curtis from 1939 to 1941 and ends with his death in 1990. But it centers the evolving relationship between Bernstein and Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan. She gets top billing for good reason: her performance removes all sense of acting, contributing so much to the sense of intimacy and presence.
The story flies from the couple’s meeting in 1946, when Bernstein was composing music for Broadway shows and achieving fame as the youngest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, to the time of Montealegre’s death in 1978. But the pace appropriately slows in the scenes where Montealegre becomes angry about Bernstein’s outed love affair with San Francisco broadcaster Tom Cothran. The film explores the couple and their family life, including their separation and reconciliation before Montealegre’s death from lung cancer. Their love-making scenes during her illness are both passionate and heartbreaking.
A masterful accomplishment
Cooper was long obsessed with the subject of his new film. He devoted many hours to internalizing everything he could about Bernstein, including spending time with his adult children, attending live New York Philharmonic concerts from a perch at the newly minted David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center (where he could carefully observe conductors’ movements), studying scores and historical documents, and visiting many of the places important to the story.
Cooper’s resemblance to Bernstein in voice, appearance, and behavior is quite believable. The prosthetic nose which Cooper wore to simulate Bernstein’s face caused a flurry of controversy when the film first appeared at film festivals, with some critics arguing that it was antisemitic. But Bernstein’s three surviving adult children publicly said that their father would have loved the film. The makeup artist Kazu Hiro, who created that nose, is an unsung hero of the movie: he made Cooper’s face the image of Bernstein.
It's easy to see why Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg supported Cooper by co-producing Maestro. It’s a masterful accomplishment, an absorbing and thought-provoking powerhouse of a film that does justice to its protagonists. It’s in theaters now and hits Netflix on December 16.
What, When, Where
Maestro. Written and directed by Bradley Cooper. Showing at various theaters and times in Philadelphia. Streaming on Netflix December 16, 2023.
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