When Bradley Cooper made his filmmaking debut with a remake of A Star is Born, I’ll admit to having been a bit skeptical. After all, the film had been done before, several times over, and was, in the wrong hands, a tired premise. Of course, Cooper was, alongside Lady Gaga, very much the right hands, and that went on to be my favorite movie of 2018. So, I’ve had my eye on Maestro for some time now. What would Cooper do with a biopic of musician Leonard Bernstein? The answer is, unsurprisingly, craft a enrapturing and quite moving picture, one that has a lot to say, but says it in a silky smooth way. This is proof that Cooper is among our very best actors turned filmmakers.
Maestro crafts its narrative much like Bernstein lived his life. It’s elegant and classical on the outside, but a deep well of playfulness runs just on the inside, with music filling things out throughout. Cooper’s script, direction, and central performance are all aces, with a vibrancy in his work that resonates from start to finish. Even when he goes for the emotions in the third act, it’s still done with a joy for what this man accomplished, both in his career, but also with his family. After all, this is, perhaps surprisingly, as much a portrait of a marriage as it is of an artist.
Instead of a standard biopic, Maestro chronicles the love story of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) and Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan). Now, we see Leonard get the call to step in as conductor at a young age, but then we see the aftermath, where he’s already becoming the toast of the town. He likes the attention, but he also loves the music, so he’s a good fit for classical celebrity. However, despite his current lover being a man (Matt Bomer), when he lays eyes on actress Felicia, the mutual spark is undeniably. They have a playfulness with each other, as well as seemingly an understanding, which leads to a long-lasting marriage.
In their later years, with three children, including eldest Jamie (Maya Hawke), the marriage frays. Leonard becomes a bit reckless with the affairs, something Felicia can no longer shrug off, leading to depression and resentment. Their breaking point appears close, though it isn’t too long before they appear a loving unit once again. Then, a medical diagnosis for Felicia, right as they seem as in love as ever, tests them in a whole new way.
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan are giving two of their very best performances here. Cooper leans into the contradictions of Leonard Bernstein, a man somewhat born in the wrong era. To the degree that he was closeted, he still got to live a vivacious life, which he doesn’t shy away from. There’s also some amazingly tender scenes of him and Mulligan. At the same time, when depicting him conducting, it’s where you see Lenny become his true self. Cooper gives himself over to the music and the passion on hand is captivating. Mulligan comes on real strong in the second half, as Felicia no longer has it in her to just let her husband do as he pleases. An argument during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a real highlight. Just when the film needs a spark, she delivers a major one. As for the secondary characters, Maya Hawke makes an excellent impression as the eldest daughter, who really feels like a mix of Leonard and Felicia, while also being her own distinct young lady. In addition to Matt Bomer, other supporting performances here include Gideon Glick, Josh Hamilton, Sam Nivola, Sarah Silverman, Michael Urie, and more. However, it’s Cooper and Mulligan that truly get to shine.
Co-writing and directing, Cooper lives and breathes the material. The screenplay he wrote with Josh Singer avoids many of the traps presented by biopics, instead focusing on the love story and many of the angles other works don’t bother to take. The music by Bernstein himself soars throughout the movie, while the visuals from Matthew Libatique, both black and white as well as color, are vivacious. In terms of pure filmmaking, this is damn near masterwork. The third act in particular, when sorrow comes into play, is riveting and deeply emotional, while never actually doing any of the traditional biopic things. It’s something to behold.
Awards-wise, Maestro seems likely to be a major Oscar player. Depending on how the precursor season goes, look for this to play big time in categories like Best Picture, Best Director (for Cooper), Best Actor (for Cooper), Best Actress (for Mulligan), Best Original Screenplay (for Cooper and Singer), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. Now, if Mulligan were to go down to Best Supporting Actress, I think she could run away with the category, but that’s a discussion for another time. Just know that this flick is an across the board Academy Award contender.
Maestro is among the best films of 2023 so far, in large part because Cooper is just that talented of a director. Along with Mulligan, the two deliver a masterclass in acting as well. The love of music, as well as the love of family, shines through. While it may be less dynamic in some ways than A Star is Born, in other ways it feels like an even more mature work from Cooper. Not only is he an A-list actor and among our better ones, he’s now an A-list filmmaker as well. It’s only a matter of time before he has an Oscar on his mantle, mark my words.