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Maestro: The Leonard Bernstein Story


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How could I know that my son would turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?
—Samuel Bernstein, father
Bradley Cooper

This film is what might be called a romantic biopic about "maestro" (and household word) Leonard Bernstein's life and work and his loving but troubled relationship with his wife, the Costa Rican/ Chilean pianist and actor Felicia Montealegre. Yet it has the power and fast-moving energy of a war film like Battleship Potemkin (Mosfilm, 1925 ) or Saving Private Ryan (Paramount, 1998). That's because Bernstein led a warrior-like and rapidly unfolding life as a world-traveling composer, conductor, educator, TV and media personality, husband, and father. In addition, the film's director and co-star Bradley Cooper, who played Bernstein, gave "not less than everything" (T.S. Eliot) to infuse believability, passion, and truth into conceiving, casting, directing, and "becoming" Bernstein with maximum verisimilitude.

Regarding the co-protagonist, Felicia Montealegre, there is a reason why Cooper gave top billing to Carey Mulligan, whose performance, at the highest level of theater arts, removed all sense of "acting" the role of Felicia, contributing in an essential way to the intimacy and the aesthetic illusion of being drawn into real events as if in the moment.

The plot of the film begins with Bernstein as a conducting and piano student at Curtis Institute in 1939 to the time of his death in 1990. The beautifully produced background music of his various compositions was conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. But it centers around the evolving relationship between Bernstein and Montealegre fast forwarding from the time they met 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. Those 32 years fly by in the film, but the pace appropriately slows in the scenes where Montealegre becomes frustrated and angry with Bernstein's gay love relations, and the film focuses on the couple, their family life and their brief separation until they reconcile and Montealegre has been diagnosed with terminal breast and lung cancer. (They both chain-smoked, and are always seen smoking in the film.) The love making between them during her illness is both passionate and heartbreaking, and once again the acting is very believable.

Cooper devoted many hours of attention to learning and internalizing everything he could about Bernstein, including spending time with his adult children, attending live NY Philharmonic concerts from a perch at the newly minted David Geffen Hall Lincoln Center where he could carefully observe conductors' movements, studying scores and historical documents, visiting many of the places where events took place, and so on. Judging from the numerous TV appearances, interviews, and news film footage of Bernstein, much of which is available on YouTube, Cooper's resemblance in voice, appearance, and behavior is quite strong, although there are a few times where he's more Bradley than Lennie. The prosthetic nose which Cooper used 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 quashed such criticism by publicly saying that their father would have loved the film. And of course movie actors use various simulations of facial features all the time. In reality, the makeup artist who created that nose is an unsung hero of the movie: he made Cooper's face the spitting image of Lennie's.

Except for a few embarrassing moments, like Cooper's ridiculous imitation of Bernstein's famous leaps off the podium, Maestro is a masterful accomplishment of film making. If it is not groundbreaking, it is an absorbing and thought-provoking powerhouse of a film that does justice to its protagonists. It is easy to see why Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg supported Cooper by co-producing it. With this film as well as his earlier remake of A Star is Born (Warner Brothers, 2018) Bradley Cooper proves himself to be an actor/director of the highest caliber.

Here are a few sidebars that might be of some interest and fun:

Bernstein's father once ironically quipped, "How could I know that my son would turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?"

Bradley Cooper was seriously interested in music in his adolescence. He grew up in Abington, PA, and neighboring townships near Philadelphia. Bernstein lived in Philadelphia long before then while he was a student at the Curtis Institute. Cooper chose Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as his consultant and conductor of the music in the film. These Philadelphia connections were very much appreciated at the inaugural showings of the film at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Bernstein was a great devotee and supporter of jazz. In addition to incorporating the jazz idiom brilliantly in so much of his music, he featured jazz and jazz musicians in some of his televised Young People's Concerts and Omnibus. Many songs from his Broadway musicals have become jazz standards. Several jazz icons, including Oscar Peterson, recorded albums of all the songs from West Side Story (Verve, 1962). When Ornette Coleman made his earth-shattering first performances of free jazz at New York's Five Spot, Bernstein went to hear him and praised him as an innovator. Jazz owes a lot to Bernstein for bringing jazz to the attention of a wider public and future generations.

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