Maestro is a biopic of Leonard Bernstein, produced by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, with Bradley Cooper starring, directing, and co-writing. The film was positioned as a major awards contender, and came highly recommended by a number of my correspondents. So I felt obliged to give the movie a fair shake, only to come away bored to tears.
Granted, the film is hardly without merit. Bradley Cooper turns in a transformative performance here, alongside Carey Mulligan, Sarah Silverman, Maya Hawke, Matt Bomer, and so many others all acting their hearts out. (Though of course all the prosthetic makeup helps.) In all aspects, the film comes through loud and clear as a love letter to Bernstein and his music, complete with a soundtrack that reads like Bernstein’s greatest hits.
I might add that Cooper shows remarkable aptitude for camerawork, but with one major caveat. The first 45 minutes of the film are shot almost entirely in black and white before the film permanently switches to color. Granted, this can be done as a means of highlighting a certain transition in the story. (Poor Things is a recent example, presented in black and white while Bella is stuck at home, before switching to color when she goes out to explore the world.) As to why the movie switches when and how it does, I haven’t the foggiest.
But of course that’s a distant second to the main dealbreaking problem with this movie: It has no plot.
When I say that, I mean specifically that there is barely anything here in the way of stakes or conflict or tension. Case in point: When Bernstein composes a grand symphony, it’s portrayed in a way that it should feel like a huge action set piece. It looks beautiful, and it sounds tremendous, but it does nothing whatsoever to advance any kind of story or plot or character development. There’s no reason to believe that Bernstein will fail at this job, there’s nothing to be gained or lost from however well he performs as conductor, and there’s no definition for what success or failure would look like.
The whole movie is two solid hours of Bernstein getting pretty much everything he wants because he’s such a charismatic genius. His musical accomplishments seem to come effortlessly and everyone is apparently in awe of his talents as a conductor/composer. Most of Bernstein’s portrayed difficulties come from his personal/romantic life, but even then, it barely affects much of anything that he’s sleeping around with men while he’s married to a Broadway actress (played by Mulligan) and they have three kids together. As portrayed in the film, Bernstein’s wife knew what she married and she puts up with her husband’s infidelities with only a few brief inconsequential outbursts.
If I squint and tilt my head, I can see a few coherent points about how Bernstein obsessively tries to avoid being any one thing. He spreads himself so thin that he has a wide variety of accomplishments without being consistently reliable at any one job. Thusly, when he puts so much time and effort into balancing work and family, juggling his family life with his same-sex affairs, something inevitably has to give. He can’t be everywhere he’s needed, and he can’t always be there for all the friends and colleagues and loved ones he’s accumulated over the years. This does result in some genuinely heartfelt character drama, but it’s mostly confined to the third act, when his wife is gradually dying of cancer.
Then his wife dies, and Bernstein more or less goes back to the way he was like nothing happened. Fuck.
Maestro had everything it needed except a plot. It looks nice, it sounds great, and the cast is wonderful, but it all amounts to a hollow facade. If Bradley Cooper so badly wanted to make a movie in celebration of Leonard Bernstein, I’d have respected him far more if he had produced a documentary on the subject instead. As a dramatization, I expect a lot more in terms of storytelling and drama, or any kind of cohesive theme.
Sorry, but a compelling subject and a star-studded pedigree isn’t enough to carry a movie any further than “Oscar-bait” status. Not recommended.