Monday, November 20, 2023

Leonard Bernstein's dizzying whirl of a life

   Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is many things -- sometimes all at once.
  Cooper directs and stars in a kaleidoscopic look at Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most famous American classical music personality of our time.
 Bernstein, of course, didn’t confine himself to the classical canon. He composed for Broadway, notably creating West Side Story’s brilliant score. He also became a literate spokesman for the classics, explaining them to children at his famous Young People’s Concerts, which were televised in the 1950s and early '60s.
 Cooper has produced an avid work that, until its morose final act, moves at headlong speeds. Most of the first part of the film is presented in black and white, shifting to color for its second half and concluding with a lingering death scene that’s nothing short of operatic -- at least in its agonizing length.
   Right off, Cooper establishes Bernstein’s attraction to men. A  bisexual, he married Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan in one of the year’s best performances. Mulligan's Felica bristles with fast-talking charm, sophistication, and intelligence; she's almost the living embodiment of a character Katharine Hepburn might have played at her wittiest best.
   As much as anything, the movie is about the marriage between two people who loved each other, although one of them (Bernstein) seldom was wholly there for the other. 
  But don’t pity Felicia. She knew who Bernstein was when she married him, and Cooper and Mulligan make it clear that the two care about each other. Lenny, as he was known to friends, and Felicia were soulmates; she did what many women did for men and some still do; she subordinated her rising stage career to the demands of husband and family. 
    Mulligan’s performance is a marvel, but what about Cooper, who initially drew criticism for donning a prosthetic nose that some thought would over-emphasize Bernstein’s Jewishness? Forget the nose, it’s a non-issue. Cooper’s performance captures the nasality of Bernstein’s speaking voice; he's true to Bernstein's vigorous conducting style which hovered somewhere between possession and aerobics.
   But the performance takes some getting used to. In the film's early going, I found Cooper’s dead-on portrayal distractingly unrelaxed. Bernstein can seem so precisely drawn that it’s like looking at a portrait in which the edges have been too sharply defined. 
   But that’s the point, I suppose. Bernstein was on the move, sampling life and deep-diving into music, which was the core of his life, maybe even his entire life
   When he conducts Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Ely Cathedral in England, Bernstein's famed physicality attains full force. It wouldn't feel entirely out of place if Cooper were to conclude the scene with an apotheosis, something as grandly magnificent as  Bernstein’s direct ascent into heaven. 
    Just kidding, but it's difficult to overstate how transported Bernstein seems to be by the music's power.
    What the film lacks (and it’s an important deficiency) is an assessment of why Bernstein was such a significant figure musically, and you won’t learn much about Bernstein’s interpretation of classical pieces. If you're interested, you can find plenty of that on YouTube.
     I haven’t made up my mind about all of Cooper’s directing choices. The opening sequences include shifts from one location to another that  storm onto the screen with the verve of someone bursting into a room, and the ways the characters snap off their dialogue, sometimes felt overdone. I wondered whether Cooper wasn't guilty of too much self-conscious wielding of the cinematic baton. 
     But then again, that’s part of Cooper’s interpretation of the screenplay, which he wrote with Josh Singer, and Maestro boasts too many commanding scenes to ignore: Bernstein lying to his daughter (Maya Hawke) about his sexuality or an argument between Bernstein and Felicia that takes place in the Bernstein’s Central Park West apartment while a snoopy float from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats by. True to his free-wheeling spirit, Bernstein at one point fantasizes that he's one of the dancing sailors in On the Town, another Broadway production for which he wrote the music.
     Maestro goes down more easily if you accept the fact that it’s not a conventional biopic. It's an immersion in Bernstein’s emotionally charged life, his roving eye for bed partners, his bouts of depression, and his ferocity about music. 
    Cooper doesn’t dwell on the social constraints that kept Bernstein closeted — at least to the public; he leaves it to us to remember that attitudes toward gay people were quite different in 1943, the year Bernstein made his debut as a conductor with the New York Philharmonic, a last-minute substitution for an ailing Bruno Walter. 
      At one point, Bernstein’s sister (crisply portrayed by Sarah Silverman) tells Felicia, who's a bit down, that she shouldn't be surprised. Surely, she understood what it’s like to be caught in Bernstein’s orbit. 
    That’s what Cooper does. He catches us in Bernstein’s dizzying orbit. He suggests that Bernstein’s career sprang from a life lived at spin-cycle speeds that left both joy and pain in its wake -- for others and for Bernstein himself.

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