A star rating of 5 out of 5.

In Maestro, taking the life of Leonard Bernstein, Bradley Cooper delivers a heartfelt work of astonishing beauty. Emotionally poignant and elegantly made, this take on the life of the American conductor, composer and pianist offers a stellar performance from lead Bradley Cooper, who has come under criticism for playing the role of Bernstein.


Premiering in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Maestro begins with a quote from Bernstein: “a work of art does not answer questions; it provokes them”. Cooper wrestles with this and other ideas: what is art, what is creativity and what does it take to lead an artistic life? “If nothing sings in you, you can’t make music,” says Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), the Chilean actress seemingly born with fire in her belly.

While Maestro is traditionally made, conventional even, it isn’t simply a tick-box of all Bernstein’s highest moments. West Side Story, for example, barely gets a mention. Cooper and his co-writer Josh Singer are smarter than that, creating a character study of a man who is both a devoted husband and family man and yet energised by his attraction to men at a time when it would’ve been ruinous to his career. “I want a lot of things,” he says, refusing to let decorum get in the way of his passions.

Switching between monochrome and colour, Cooper pays due attention to the eras the film moves through. Beginning in the 1940s, when the young Bernstein conducts for the New York Philharmonic, Maestro feels like a film that perfectly reflects the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Although we don’t see his time in Hollywood (Bernstein composed music for the classic Marlon Brando-starrer On The Waterfront), Cooper acknowledges his work there in the way Maestro sounds and feels. The lure of Broadway is also perfectly crystallised; a rhythmic rehearsal of On The Town, for example, is splendidly revealed.

Likewise, this feels like a movie that’s lived through the mid-20th Century, from the never-ending plumes of cigarette smoke (everyone seems to light up here) to the period pitched dialogue. Such as: “I actually get to envy the air that funnels its way through you,” Bernstein says to his wife-to-be, in a very elegant slice of pillow talk. Gradually, Bernstein’s “schizophrenic” life, the clash between the personal and the professional, comes to the fore, as his marriage begins to crumble.

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It’s here where Mulligan shines with an awards-worthy turn. One argument, held in their apartment, will leave you spellbound, as she rips into her selfish husband, a man imprisoned by his urges. When gossip begins to spread about his affair with musical director Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick), Bernstein lies to his daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) about his sexuality. Later, high on cocaine, he indiscreetly chatters away to her on the phone, telling her things she doesn’t want to hear. In other words, Maestro is no sanitised, saintly portrait.

Marking only Cooper’s second film as director, following 2018’s remake A Star Is Born, when the film soars, it really soars. Towards the end, before tragic news strikes, there’s a scene with Bernstein conducting, sweat pouring from him. It’s a triumph of passion and power and concludes with a moment so romantic, it’ll bring tears to the eyes. Maybe you can argue that Maestro doesn’t show the struggle fully that Bernstein endured. He is told to change his name to ‘Berns’, for example, for fear of prejudice, refuses and that’s the end of that. But the struggle here is an interior one, and Cooper captures the price of genius with genuine aplomb. Take a bow, maestro.

Maestro will release on Netflix on 20th December 2023. Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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