Bradley Cooper's sophmore directing effort is a crowning achievement
Despite being an action star, romantic lead, and celebrated performer, Bradley Cooper is quickly transitioning into becoming one of the most unique directing talents of his generation. His fascination with music has brought us the refreshing remake of A Star is Born (2018) and with his sophomore effort has delivered the definitive biopic on conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein.
Maestro (2023) follows the life of the famous American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) as he traverses a life of duality alongside his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan). Bernstein is torn by his queerness, infidelities, and consumed by his ultimate passion: music. This weighs heavily on Felicia, and we see her struggle under the weight of being the essential component of Bernstein’s success yet also his most underappreciated asset.
Cooper delivered a competent and dramatically fulfilling film in A Star is Born, but with Maestro his artistic strokes are bolder, holding nothing back. Cooper is in full control of his facets, playing with the aspect ratio, coloring, length of takes, and more to bring about an immersive and full-fledged transportation through Bernstein and Felicia’s life. We begin in a 1:1 ratio in black and white, and slowly start to transition to wide screens and color as we begin to “fill in” the elements of Maestro’s story. The long takes that Cooper uses, along with the medium shots also give the sense of watching live performances. These long takes are impressive in both two-hander dialogue scenes as well as the overpowering conducting performances. The latter is key to translating Bernstein’s musical brilliance to viewers. Not many are schooled in the art of conducting, yet the passion and awe that is transmitted in these musical shots helps everyone understand the unique genius and artistry that Bernstein brought.
Cooper, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, makes a key choice that many biopics fail at; including the genius’ wife as a main character. Many films about famous characters talk up how the wife is the “rock” of the suffering genius, yet never provide the necessary characterization or exploration. Maestro makes the effective choice of placing Felicia as a main character along Bernstein, she has equal if not more screentime than him. This helps illustrate the far more fascinating story of the contradictory and frustrating role that Felicia was forced to live under, finding her sense of identity, self-worth, and love for her partner clashing. Cooper clearly illustrates the way in which Felicia was as essential a character in this story as Bernstein himself.
Maestro is a two-hander, with both Cooper and Mulligan delivering inarguable career bests. Cooper disappears into his role, alongside some of the best film make-up in recent years (courtesy of the legendary Kazu Hiro). The long takes Cooper employs allows him to take his time with scenes, letting viewers see the shadows of emotion flit behind Bernstein’s eyes as he denies his homosexuality to his daughter, or his bright enervating conduction in every musical piece. It’s hard in these latter scenes to not get goosebumps, I certainly found myself as moved in those scenes as the heartbreaking character-driven ones. Mulligan as Felicia delivers one of the most intriguing character studies. Felicia is a woman lost in her frustration, wanting to escape yet is madly in love, suffering and searching in vain, knowing that her entire life will always be linked to Bernstein’s persona. Mulligan plays the contradictions and arguments to perfection, letting us witness and fully understand her sense of loss and undeniable purpose.
Maestro is a definitive cinematic triumph, with Cooper delivering a magnum opus in both performance and direction. The careful and daring use of cinematic techniques in production, costumes, and make-up as well as the elevation of an insuperable Mulligan as the protagonist’s equal makes for one of the best films in recent years. Topping that off with the spectacular Bernstein musical catalogue, and there’s little reason to not rush out and see this film immediately.