For the first three-quarters of Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s written-directed-acted film on the life of the celebrated conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, one is left on the verge of indecisiveness.

Is Maestro, with its vignettish chronicle of Bernstein’s restrained flamboyance and hardly catastrophic personal life, more than the seeming Oscar bait it looks and feels like? Or do the judiciously calculated weights Cooper places on the narrative hide a shrewdly made masterpiece?

In all honesty, I am still undecided on just how good Maestro is and — in a connected thought — how resilient its creative storytelling decisions will be, as the years age the relevance of the film.

As of today, despite the award-season panache it flaunts, by the end one does feel that the film is a bit more rewarding — no, scratch that: let’s call it understated and understanding — than the Oscars fare I fear we’ll see this year (Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon and Barbie).

Bradley Cooper depicting the celebrated conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein is the real maestro of Maestro

Although produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Speilberg, this is very much Cooper’s film — and a difficult one to navigate through, since Bernstein’s life isn’t as tumultuous as the typical Hollywood biopic.

The film is kind and sensitive to Bernstein, a real-life maestro who took the reigns of the New York Philharmonic at the age of 25, and then did everything — Broadway, ballet, opera, motion pictures, won Emmys and Grammys, and made the cover of Newsweek and Time.

His genius never stagnated and the music just poured out of him, at least from what we see through Cooper’s lens, since we never witness that end of his struggles…or any struggles for that matter.

Bernstein is aloof and self-centred but not oblivious to the hurt he is causing his wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan), a struggling actress who gained fame but who never rose to prominence because of her husband’s all-engulfing shadow.

Although never shackled by Bernstein, Felicia chose to be a woman of compromise, who is supportive of Bernstein’s talents but is wasted away by his bisexual tendencies.

The facade is brutal on Felicia, but Cooper doesn’t blow it up even during heated exchanges; we know these two characters share a complicated relationship of love.

Cooper’s fixation of framing Felicia as a martyr gives him reasons to flaunt his directorial prowess. In every section of the story, he starts or ends shots on Felicia’s expressions: sad, angry, contending with the turmoil she knowingly signed up for as Bernstein’s wife, with his brilliance and flamboyance openly exhibiting his inner gayness without fear of consequence.

In a later scene, Bernstein is told by Felicia to lie about his homosexual tilts to his eldest daughter, who had been hearing rumours about her father. Their three children, kept mostly in the backseat of the story, would get to know this soon enough one assumes, since Cooper doesn’t have the teeniest of inclinations to show us the whens and the wheres.

Maestro, shot by the brilliant cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, A Star Is Born) and edited by Michelle Tesoro (Queen’s Gambit, Godless), doesn’t have time for conventional plot points. The film breezes through decades in the blink of an eye and the snip of the editor’s cut, concentrating instead on moments of routine life that Cooper enlarges according to his preference of depicting that particular era.

The aspect ratio stays square-ish (Cooper chooses the 4:3 Academy ratio) that traps Bernstein’s world within a self-contained box. The constriction carries an air of happy acceptance by Cooper, since it allows him creativity to be intricate with the camera moves.

For the first half, the camera cuts seamlessly from locations, embedding us in a wilful and carefree world of classic fantasies. As the story becomes more brooding, the production design and colour grade of these decades take the spark of old-Hollywood out of the story, replacing it with stoic, calm realism of the ’60s and the ’70s.

Throughout it all, one realises that not Felica or Bernstein but Cooper, with his surefire Oscar winning make-up of Bernstein, and pitch-perfect acting, is the maestro of Maestro.

Like Bernstein, whose full-bodied music-conducting mannerisms he nailed to a ‘T’, Cooper’s work is as exquisite as it is non-groundbreaking, whose true genius is masked (and compromised) by the idea that it has to be Oscar bait.

Released by and streaming on Netflix, Maestro is rated R and has adult themes of infidelity

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 21th, 2024

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