M, 129 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It is curious that, after relatively little on screen about the subject, there have in the last year been two high-profile movie portraits of the lives of orchestra conductors. The dramatic potential is a revelation. Who knew?

The conductor played by Cate Blanchett in last year’s Tar, directed by Todd Haynes, was fictional but has been a bit controversial. This year’s film from Bradley Cooper on the life of the celebrated American, Leonard Bernstein, is based on the facts and is said to have the approval of the late conductor’s family.

Biopics about fabulously talented people in the arts like the composer Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), and the painters Vincent Van Gogh (Loving Vincent) and Jackson Pollock (Pollock), make the point that a profusion of talent isn’t necessarily a blessing. In their private lives, artist have been portrayed as suffering dreadfully for their art, but Bernstein, despite bouts of dark depression and the live threat of scandal, seemed to ride the crest of a wave.

His self-confidence was formidable, though his rise to fame during the 1940s-1950s occurred at a time when being gay, or bisexual, had to be hidden. Yet his flamboyant character made total secrecy impossible. Cooper’s portrayal of the frenetic personality with a burning need for love and approval is gripping, with Bernstein biting off more than he could chew, triumphing all the same.

How did he find time to cultivate an interior life?

It had a lot to do with his marriage to Felicia Montealegre, apparently. She may have provided him with a stabilising self-acceptance that he couldn’t find in himself, and perhaps it was this that sustained him.  The Costa Rican-American television and stage actor, played by Carey Mulligan, knew of and accepted his homosexuality prior to their marriage, bore him three children and remained married to him until she passed.

Mulligan shows once again how good she is in a complex role. As a woman who loved deeply and was loved deeply in return by her mercurial husband, Montealegre had the strength to maintain her dignity despite the affairs with men. Gaining acceptance from the kids’ about the truth of Bernstein’s double life was a different matter.

Theirs was a fascinating relationship and we want to understand more about how it worked, but the film isn’t particularly forensic about it. The romantic couple shared a love of music and performance, but their courting seems rather mannered. Intimately framed scenes in close-up underline what Bernstein’s marriage and family life meant to him but reveal little about how it all really worked. On the other hand, on this second occasion in the director’s chair since A Star is Born, Cooper has shown how individual artistic success can actually take two people.

The screenplay is a collaboration between the director Cooper and Josh Singer, who has written screenplays for prestigious films like The Post, Spotlight (on which he was co-writer) and episodes of television’s West Wing. The narrative journey jumps around unconventionally, here, though it is probably true to the personality of an impetuous celebrity who was active in many fields besides conducting. Musical composition, education, political advocacy. How did he find time to cultivate an interior life?

A dazzling achievement though Bernstein’s impact on popular culture with West Side Story rates little mention

In early scenes, after a brief introduction to Bernstein in interview after his bereavement, the biopic is off and away, beginning with a bravura sequence in a loft apartment in New York. A phone rings, and after pausing to light a cigarette, young Lenny takes the call. He bounds off the bed, slaps the bottom of his sleeping companion, he tears down corridors and through doorways until he bounces onto the stage at Carnegie Hall to stand in for the scheduled conductor, who was ill-disposed. It was the 25-year-old’s moment, like the extended triumphal moment of him conducting a Mahler symphony at Ely cathedral in England.

Yet it was also a triumph when West Side Story, for which he wrote the music, first hit the stage in 1957. The musical has had a big impact on popular culture, on stage and screen, and I was hanging out to hear more about how it came about.

Maestro is a dazzling achievement with terrific lead performances, comfortable with the audacious Lenny Bernstein encapsulating the positivism and dynamism of mid-20th century American expression in the arts, but what about his impact on popular culture too? Just thought I’d ask.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 December 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes