Maestro (2024.2, Powerful , Solid )

Maestro is a well told story of a romance between two individuals over decades and how it developed in the shadow of fame. (4.5*)

Maestro – Snapshot

Maestro is, at one level, a story of Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and his loving relationship with his wife, Felicia (Carey Mulligan).  Whether it’s totally true or not is irrelevant – it is a terrific and powerful story of how a relationship evolves in the shadow of fame and in the face of opposing interests. (And stop worrying over the nose – it really isn’t important!) (4.5*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Netflix

Rent/Buy:  (Nowhere)

Maestro – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (7) / Oscar Wins (0) :

Best Picture

Original Screenplay (Bradley Cooper/Josh Singer)

Leading Actress (Carey Mulligan)

Leading Actor (Bradley Cooper)

Cinematography (Matthew Libatique)

Sound (Morrow/King/Ruder/Ozanich/Zupancic)

Makeup&Hairstyling (Hiro/Georgiou/McCoy-Bell)

Maestro scored a 12 on my Oscar Quality Index, ranking it fifth among this year’s 38 nominees.  Despite a large number of nominations, with four majors, the film failed to bring home an Oscar, just like our first reviewed movie, Killers of the Flower Moon.   So there’s lots to talk about:

The movie enjoyed some controversy because of the prosthetic nose Kazo Hiro designed for Bradley Cooper.  Though possessing a substantial appendage himself, Cooper thought it needed some additional shaping to complete his astonishing transition to match Leonard Bernstein’s appearance.  Hiro won an Oscar for similar work he did on Bombshell and The Darkest Hour, and has received two other nominations in addition to this one.  He also did the prosthetics for the amazing transformations in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Wherever Cooper goes he brings his own hair stylist, Lori McCoy-Bell.  It is her work that completes the look doing a remarkable job of emulating Bernstein’s hair curls, color and texture.  (There is a final scene in the movie where the real Bernstein is conducting and it is very difficult to tell that it isn’t Cooper again!). She has worked with Cooper on American Hustle, A Star is Born,  and Nightmare Alley.   However, this is McCoy-Bell’s first Oscar nomination.

Kay Georgiou was previously nominated for her hairstyling work on Joker.  Although I don’t know, I suspect her role was primarily working on Carey Mulligan’s remarkable transformations over four decades of changing hair fashion.

It is always difficult to talk about Sound nominations because you only tend to notice the sound element of a film when it isn’t working right.  Otherwise you happily pay attention to the visuals and the emotional elements of the storytelling.  Nonetheless a nomination in Sound is important and five men are recognized for their work here out of a credited team of 21 people.  In addition to resolving normal dialog issues, the team also had to artistically integrate a soundtrack of Bernstein’s music, as well as a few other very different composers and songwriters, and create the necessary new sounds which always need to be added back into the final product. The seasoned team of sound mixers, music producers, and sound designers who headed up the various efforts and their previous Oscar nominations are listed below:

Steven Morrow (Ford v Ferrari, La La Land, A Star is Born)

Richard King (Inception (WINNER), Dunkirk (WINNER), The Dark Knight (WINNER), Interstellar, War of the Worlds, Oppenheimer)

Jason Ruder (A Star is Born)

Tom Ozanich (A Star is Born, Joker, The Creator)

Dean A. Zupancic (A Star is Born, The Creator, Joker, The Chronicles of Narnia)

The cinematographic challenges in Maestro are very different than those in our previously reviewed film, also nominated in cinematography, Killers of the Flower Moon. In the previous movie the camera had to do both broad panoramic landscape views as well as intimate conversations between the two leads.  In Maestro, the challenges are trying to accurately convey the emotional tension in conducting a living instrument of, possibly, hundreds of human musicians responding to their leading maestro, as well as conveying the transitions occurring over four decades.  Cinematographer Mathew Libatique has experience doing both of those things.  Nominated for Black Swan, in that film he had to convey the performance experience of the dance world.  And, working with Bradley Cooper, his work in A Star is Born was also nominated, presumably for how he moves the visual experience over different time periods.  In Maestro he shows mastery over the historical period transition by changing from black and white to color, changing the aspect ratio to match the film style of the time period, and employing filters to recreate how movies looked at each time.  It is fun, and emotionally reinforcing to watch time elapse over the forty or fifty years of the film.

Maestro focuses on the relationship between Leonard Bernstein and his wife of almost three decades, Felicia Montealegre Cohn – it isn’t really a full biopic on Bernstein and what you might think of as a standard musician story with a mighty rise and a tragic fall (e.g. Elvis). Instead, it correctly extracts a smaller story exploring just these two people and their impact on each other – which was huge.  This precise focus places a substantial set of responsibilities on the two actors portraying those people – and they solidly deliver!  The nominations for the two of them are entirely appropriate.

Bradley Cooper – even without the prosthetic nose – has an uncanny resemblance to Leonard Bernstein.  And Cooper must have recognized that resemblance in deciding to play the role himself and to direct and co-write the script.  I’m guessing that he also has some fascination and familiarity with classical music, and Bernstein’s in particular, so this is probably a labor of love.  Cooper has four previous acting nominations for A Star is Born, American Sniper, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook.  His work with Jennifer Lawrence in the latter two movies was exceptional and I especially loved the ensemble acting in American Hustle. In Maestro he demonstrates, again, how he can do wonders when paired with a great actress!

And what a partner he has!  Carey Mulligan is one of my favorite actresses.  This is her third nomination after her breakout role in An Education and a terrifically slaying performance in Promising Young Woman. In my review of the latter film I wrote “This is not a role for a front-and-center actress.  Instead it requires someone who is both reserved and incredibly intelligent – Mulligan fits the bill perfectly.”  As Felicia Montealgre Cohn, Bernstein’s wife, Mulligan has quite possibly reached a high point in her career.  Her performance here is so compelling in her sophisticated understanding of her husband and the pain that he causes her that we can’t believe she’s acting.  Her dimpled smile belies a deep and hurting soul.  This is a terrific performance and is worth seeing the movie just for her.

Cooper, apparently, had intentions for Mulligan to play the role early on in the film creation process – probably as he was writing the screenplay, for which he received an original screenplay nomination.  This is Cooper’s second screenplay nomination, following his work with Eric Roth and Will Fetters on A Star is Born.  But this is only Cooper’s second attempt at writing a feature film and this time he partnered with Josh Singer who previously won an Original Screenplay Oscar for Spotlight.  Their script for Maestro wisely adopts the notion that, in a two hour movie, they would not be able to explore all the possible dimensions of a musical talent like Bernstein.  Instead they focus specifically on Leonard’s relationship with his wife, selectively using his life events to suggest how their interaction might have worked in private.  As a biopic and not a documentary, I found the dialog between the two to be the most compelling parts of the movie – you will too!

Cooper also directed this film and I’m always leery of actors who direct themselves.  Unfortunately, there is a tendency for the director to become overly absorbed in his own role to give adequate guidance and interpretation to the other actors.  And it is indicative that he didn’t receive a nomination for directing.  However, I have to admit that Cooper obviously gave Mulligan lots of room to shine reflecting a wise understanding of her strengths.

So after receiving six other nominations, including three majors, it isn’t at all surprising that it was also nominated for Best Picture.  But even though it ranks fifth out of 24 general interest movies in my Oscar Quality Index, it failed to bring home a single Oscar.  Unlike Scorsese, in Killers of the Flower Moon, Cooper has been based in Los Angeles for years and so likely has broader ties to the Hollywood community.  I suspect, though, that the reason for Maestro’s lack of wins at the Oscars is based on the subject matter which might be described as rather elitist, and New York based; the resulting lack of audience response (see below); and the failure to reach box-office success equal to Barbenheimer!

Maestro – Related Movies

A Star is Born (Directing, Script, Cooper, Cinematography, Sound, Hairstyling)

Spotlight (Script)

The Post (Script, Production Design)

First Man (Script, Sound)

Nightmare Alley (Cooper, Sound, Hairstyling)

American Hustle (Cooper, Hairstyling)

Promising Young Woman; An Education (Mulligan)

Silver Linings Playbook; American Sniper (Cooper)

Licorice Pizza (Cooper, Costumes, Hairstyling)

Black Swan (Cinematography)

Joker (Sound, Costumes, Makeup)

Ad Astra (Sound, Production Design)

Ford v Ferrari; La La Land; Babylon; Being the Ricardos; Inception; Dunkirk; Interstellar; The Dark Knight; War of the Worlds; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; The Sea Beast; King Richard; Tenet; Women Talking; Coming 2 America ; Richard Jewell (Sound)

West Side Story; Bridge of Spies; French Dispatch (Production Design)

The Fabelmans (Production Design, Costumes))

The Artist; The Phantom Thread; Inherent Vice; News of the World; Marriage Story (Costumes)

Bombshell; Darkest Hour (Makeup)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; Free Guy (Hairstyling)

Maestro – What Others Think

Audience reaction has not been tremendous.  In fact, based on my audience rating data, Maestro is the least liked film among the viewing public, ranking it at the very bottom out of 24 general interest films in this year’s list of Oscar-nominated movies!  At a little over two hours, this film doesn’t share the negative quality of being too long as was Killers of the Flower Moon. But, instead, the film is about the rarefied world of classical music.  Audience reviews reflected variations of the idea that, “Really, who cares?”  If you recall, last year’s Tar had a similar problem. Classical music, as a theme, just doesn’t work for a lot of people.

As might be expected, the professional critics are more receptive.  In one of the largest differences between critics and audiences, the critics rated Maestro fourteenth out of the 24 general interest films, solidly in the middle range – not at the very bottom.  Manohla Dhargis (New York Times) gave the film a Critics Pick and called it “A fast paced chronicle of towering highs, crushing lows and artistic milestones most delivered in a personal key.” She further finds “Cooper explores the definition – and brutal toll –  of success with deep sympathy, lushly beautiful wall-to-wall music and great narrative velocity.” The FlickFilosopher, MaryAnn Johanson agrees “…Cooper’s astonishing high-wire act feels classic and modern at the same time: immersive and impressionistic, breathtakingly bold.  A kick in the pants to mainstream cinema.”  Some critics didn’t quite see Maestro that way, perhaps missing the focus of the movie.  Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert) wrote “Cooper does his level best, God knows, but never inhabits the role.  It plays as a tribute, which it arguably is, but it needed to be more.”  Christy Lemire (RogerEbert) complains “…while Bernstein’s music is woven throughout…we never truly understand him deeply as a musician or a man.”  So there is a range of critical opinion, which might explain why the critical rating wasn’t higher.

Maestro – Special Mention

Leonard Bernstein – (Warning: Possible Spoilers ahead, so you might want to read this section after you see the movie, but I’m only recounting known biographical facts!) The man is historically important because he is the first American conductor to be internationally recognized in the classical music scene.  Until Bernstein, American-born conductors either helmed regional orchestras or played second-fiddle to European-born names.  The opening scene in Maestro is historically accurate – on November 14, 1943, 25 year old Philadelphia-born Bernstein filled in for a sick Bruno Walter and conducted the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in an afternoon performance that was recorded and broadcast around the world.  His superb performance, in a clinch, instantly propelled him into world-wide fame.

Bernstein was born in 1918 to Jewish parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine (part of Russia at the time).  Although his father, initially, wasn’t real supportive of his musical interest, he did take him to his first orchestral concert,  at the age of 14, where the Boston Pops Orchestra played Ravel’s Bolero, which apparently had an oversized effect on the hormonally-charged teenager.  He had a lifelong case of asthma which kept him out of military service, and also explains his nasal voice.  After smoking profusely over the years, his asthma evolved into emphysema and he died of mesothelioma in 1990.

He did, as portrayed in the movie, meet Felicia Montealegre Cohn at a party in the mid 1940s and they were engaged for a while, but, apparently, Leonard broke it off.  They reconnected later and he married her in 1951 and they had three children (who have  lauded the film!).  He separated from Felicia in 1976 to live with Tom Cochran (who also appears in the movie).  But, upon learning of Felicia’s cancer, he moved back in with her and cared for her until her death in 1978.   Although there were other men in his life, I found no evidence there was another woman!

In addition to a prolific music career as a conductor and composer, Bernstein was also a committed activist for progressive causes and, because of that, had an 800-page FBI file!  The man had many facets.

Maestro – Michael’s Moments

Maestro is a biopic and, typically, I’m not too fond of them because it is so uncertain what is truth and what is fiction.  Of course, they don’t pretend to be documentaries, and I get that.  But the presentation is such that you are led to believe that the real person that the movie is based on really did and say the things they do and say in the movie when there might not be any relevance to fact at all.  What you get is purely the filmmaker’s impression of that person.  And so the movie quite possibly tells you more about the filmmaker’s biography than it does the subject of the film.  All of that makes dealing with biopics difficult.

As is the case with Cooper’s portrayal of Bernstein, there is so much mirroring of known events (like the short-notice conducting that propelled him to fame), that the film gains credibility.  Cooper’s use of Bernstein’s own music to tell his story further develops its truth value.  His use of cinematographic techniques –  such as black & white versus color, and screen ratios – gives fidelity to the passing of time by making us think, even subconsciously, that we are watching a movie from that time.  He convinces us that events must have happened this way.

And yet neither he nor us can possibly know for sure that Felicia and Leonard actually played those games on the lawn sitting back to back;  in fact, they may have been talking about something completely different.  But ultimately, it doesn’t matter because the essence of this movie lies in the feelings it communicates about the impact two people can have on each other.  In one scene, post-coital I’m presuming, they have some exquisite pillow talk while she lays her head on his naked chest.  Did that happen?  How would we know?  But it does give us a powerful feeling of the emotional connection two people felt for each other and that, in itself, is worth the suspension of doubt.

We don’t know for sure how Felicia felt about Lenny’s gay liaisons.  But she is quoted as saying that she knew about them before she married him and accepted it.  She said “It’s my own arrogance to think I could survive on what he could give.”  But when she needed it most, he was there for her and I think that’s an important part of the film’s message.

Critical to the success of Maestro are the performances of Cooper and Mulligan.  Cooper, reportedly, learned conducting an orchestra over a period of six years prior to filming this movie.  There are two scenes (one at Ely Cathedral, outside of London, which is an historical and emotional musical experience) where Cooper is actually conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  (Ages ago I tried to learn conducting, and it is not an easy job at all!) All of which shows the effort and work that Cooper put into absorbing this role.  But, as I’ve argued earlier, his performance wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for Carey Mulligan’s gifted, intelligent, and soulful understanding of Felicia’s life living in Leonard’s shadow.

The title card at the beginning of the movie is a quote from Leonard Bernstein: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is the tension between the contradictory answers.”  So rather than fret and moan about whether the film is portraying truth – which it doesn’t have to; or that it fails to show how Leonard became so interested in music or why he loved it so much – which it never intended to; instead look at the questions it provokes and the thoughts and feelings it takes to answer them.

In one scene Felicia is barely seen in the gap between two curtains looking, admiringly at Leonard conducting a concert.  As the camera pulls back we see that she is, quite literally, receding into his shadow as he waves his arms up and down.  They loved each other immensely, at least for a time, but like a lot of love stories, it was nearly impossible to live with it.  Somehow life has a way of getting in the way of properly expressed feelings.

Whether or not you like classical music – or the elites who create and perform it – that isn’t what Maestro is trying to question.  Instead look at the dynamics of two people caught in a very loving relationship made all the more difficult by success and personal foibles.  Look at the contradictions and judge Maestro as a work of art! (4.5*)

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