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Venice 2023 review: 'Maestro' - Bradley Cooper's masterful Leonard Bernstein biopic

Maestro
Maestro Copyright Venice Film Festival
Copyright Venice Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
Published on Updated
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Marriage Story.

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Venice knows a thing or two about conductors.

Last year, Cate Blanchett wowed the crowds with her barnstorming turn as the misanthropic Lydia Tár; she’s left the stage free this year for Bradley Cooper, who gives a note-perfect performance as legendary composer-conductor (and Tár’s fictional mentor) Leonard Bernstein.

The leading man is also behind the camera and on co-writing duties (with Josh Singer) for his sophomore effort after A Star Is Born, and Maestro shows he’s the furthest thing from a one-trick pony. He dodges the typical cradle-to-grave biopic formula by focusing on a decade spanning love story between the sexually fluid “Lenny” and Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).

We’re initially transported in gorgeous monochrome back to 1943, Bernstein’s big break at the age of 25 as he steps in to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. He has a male lover but begins to woo Felicia, quickly revealing his boundless appetite for people, as well as his incapacity to be alone. Which is quite the snag, as composing is often a very solitary discipline.

“My father thinks I could be the first great American conductor,” he tells his future wife.

“Is that what you want?” she asks.

“I want a lot of things.”

That he does, as Felicia knows the score from the get-go.

We move from their courtship (featuring an excellent On The Town song-and-dance number) to the 50s, 60s and 70s, showing the ups and downs of a 27-year marriage that ends with Felicia not blaming her husband’s sexuality but acknowledging her own arrogance in fooling herself into thinking that what Lenny could give her was enough.

History and herstory

Mulligan shines, giving an affecting performance that never overplays emotional beats and complements Cooper’s mesmerising but showier-by-design turn. Maestro is as much her story as it is Lenny’s, and both actors are magnetic on screen, bouncing off each other beautifully. Whether it’s flirting, tender understanding or insults, their dialogue sounds real, as it often overlaps in its fast-paced rhythm. This verbal pace works in unison with Matthew Libatique’s superb cinematography, which also instils an old-fashioned, Golden Age of Hollywood mood.

Cooper remains utterly convincing as the aging artist through the decades – with no hint of distraction from the prosthetics. Don’t pay any attention to the silly Twitterati (or should that be Xerati now?) hoopla and all the “Jewface” fuss about the prosthetic nose. Focus instead on a final-act scene that is a recreation of his legendary performance of Mahler in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Cooper captures Bernstein’s all-encompassing enthusiasm in an eerily accurate way, while his brief (and superbly edited) interaction with his then ex-wife in the audience will punish your tear ducts in the most beautiful way.

If there’s one thing that could prove divisive in Maestro, it’s the lack of career context. Those unfamiliar with Bernstein’s towering artistic accomplishments will find themselves starved of background. Some cues do tip their hat to his musical output, but there’s a distinct absence of insight here.

However, this feels like a very conscious choice, to better focus on the portrait of a marriage, as well as eschew tired biopic templates and the genre’s hagiographic leanings, which either lead to sanitized accounts or box-ticking exercises as stale as a Wikipedia page.

You’ll just have to make do with a stylish, intimate and moving tribute to an artist and a family, as well as the confirmation that Cooper is the real deal just as much behind the camera as he is in front. And considering last year’s Tár, as well as the fact both Scorsese and Spielberg had a crack at this long-gestating biopic before Cooper got his talented mitts on it, Maestro was no guaranteed masterpiece.

We got one anyway.

Maestro premiered in Competition at the Venice Film Festival and will enter a limited theatrical release on 22 November before hitting Netflix on 20 December.

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