Maestro is a movie that burst into pop culture consciousness as soon as it was announced. By the time we saw a trailer, it had cemented its spot in the popular vernacular thanks to the little matter of Bradley Cooper and his famous prosthetic nose. Will the movie surpass this superficial gossip to earn the accolades it desperately yearns for? Or will Maestro prove to be just another shallow, nostalgia-bait biopic? Well, read on.
Maestro tells the story of legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) as he meets and falls in love with his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). The story follows their love story from their first meeting in the early 1950s through Bernstein’s life in the 1990s. Matt Bomer, Sarah Silverman and Michael Urie co-star in the movie. Bradley Cooper directs Maestro from a script he co-wrote with Josh Singer.
From the ground up, Maestro bulges with the lofty expectations of “Awards Season Fare.” In fact, if the term had a picture in the dictionary, it would be a glossy still from this movie. Those who follow Oscar buzz will know precisely what this is — Roma, The Irishman … heck, even Blonde had this shimmer. Maestro‘s beautiful cinematography radiates with this nostalgic awards season gleam. Netflix understands rose-colored nostalgia glasses like few others.
Much of Maestro‘s first two acts harken to a nostalgia that feels immediately comfortable for fans of Old Hollywood. This shows everywhere, from the shimmering cinematography to the sneaky integration of a ballet sequence pulled straight from mid-twentieth-century musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. The choreographed sequence is executed beautifully and is led with charisma by Carey Mulligan.
With each passing work, Cooper continues to gain confidence as a director. It’s fascinating to watch his camera throughout Maestro. While the set-ups are not truthfully inventive, his easy direction harkens back to the independent filmmakers of the 1970s. Cooper is perfectly comfortable plopping his camera down and letting his actors do their thing. It’s almost theatrical in places, but ultimately, Maestro is about humanity. Flashy camera would only distract from that.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Maestro is, first and foremost, an acting feast. As an actress, Carey Mulligan should have at least one Oscar by this point in her career. Meanwhile, A Star is Born reminded us that Bradley Cooper is getting quite close to the achievement. Now, what happens when you put these two performers together? Magic.
Much of the gossip surrounding the film has revolved around Cooper’s transformation into Leonard Bernstein. In truth, yours truly tends to rebel against many of these oft-hyped performances. Very rarely are these roles (especially when played by actual movie stars) genuinely transformative. Well, I have to eat my hat. Cooper’s work as Bernstein is as transformative as he’s ever been, and in truth, he’s rarely been better than he is this time around.
Sitting here with my movie critic hat on, I must admit that this could be Cooper’s Oscar year. While his performance is not my “number one” Best Actor contender for 2023, he is in my top five at the moment. This meaty and splashy role could put the respected and versatile performer in a good spot come the Academy Awards.
Cooper and Singer’s screenplay fully invests in Felicia and Leonard’s story. While both actors bask in the glow of building this chemistry, the film’s biggest miss appears to be what isn’t said.
While the question of Bernstein’s sexuality is present within the narrative, it remains a largely unspoken plot point. Instead, the film leans into the repressive nature of sexuality during the mid-twentieth century. This gives powerful weight to Felicia and Leonard’s story, but it is rarely acknowledged by the characters, pulling back on some character development. Matt Bomer particularly struggles under the weight of this. The actor gives a quietly heartbreaking performance, but ultimately, he doesn’t have much to do. At the same time, this also shrouds Leonard in a sense of mystery.
This really pulls the movie back from being the relationship drama one might expect, with lots of crying and heavily emotional scenes. We’ve seen that period drama. Maestro is quieter. It’s more subdued. This isn’t a statement about two people fighting against a repressive world. Instead, this is a human examination of a couple and the complexities we all have within ourselves.
To make a long review short, I was pleasantly surprised by Maestro. I went in expecting yet another shimmering but shallow Netflix awards season biopic. However, I wasn’t expecting to be pulled in, kicking and screaming. Cooper’s subtle directorial approach smartly allows his actors to do the talking in a glowing biopic that not only basks in nostalgia, it understands it.
Maestro is now playing in select theaters around the country. The movie premieres on Netflix on December 20, 2023.
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