maestro trailer - Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan

Maestro review | Bradley Cooper’s latest melodrama is beautifully sad and swooning

Bradley Cooper stars as composer Leonard Bernstein in this biopic with Carey Mulligan portraying his wife. Read our full Maestro review.


Director Bradley Cooper stars as composer Leonard Bernstein in this biopic with Carey Mulligan portraying his wife. Cooper’s follow-up to A Star is Born is a film packed with phenomenal performances. Read our full Maestro review. 

Though written, directed, produced and starring Bradley Cooper, it’s the forlorn face of Carey Mulligan that lingers with you long after the credits roll on Maestro. Her top billing, and prominence on the posters, should clue you in with regards to the film’s position as a somewhat different kind of biopic – one thematically in line with Cooper’s last feature, A Star is Born, and coming to us as yet another turbulent, musical melodrama about what it means to part of a complicated, co-dependent twosome.

The “Maestro” in question is the great American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, best known, perhaps, for writing the iconic music for West Side Story, but who also carved out a legacy of epic proportions across the decades, winning Emmys, Grammys, and reverence from the public. 

Anyone looking for deeper insights into the finer musicality of it all, though, might be surprised to find that, although heavy with Bernstein’s most famous compositions, the focus here falls on his relationship with wife Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan).

bradley cooper maestro

Credit: Netflix

Less a meditation on the man’s body of work, then, but an examination of how our choices weigh on the lives of others, Maestro grapples, ambitiously, with notions of authenticity by telling the story of two people who cared for each other deeply, but in very different ways. Namely, it’s a film that wonders how we might live in a place of truth – something that Bernstein, who lived as a closeted gay man for much of his life, was unable to do. 

Is it possible to do our best work when we are full of resentment and regrets? Cooper, co-writing with Josh Singer, hones in on such questions, envisioning the composer’s life, and the life of his wife, as something of a tragedy. As she wrestles with the growing suspicions over his sexuality, the film takes a less obvious approach to the timeline, often cutting around the big moments, leaving us to speculate on events between the years. The word “gay” is never said out loud.

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Shot and photographed in a gorgeous, swooning manner, Cooper conducts Maestro in a lush and melodramatic style, heavy on creative camerawork and stirring close-ups, while peppering it with inspired touches of the experimental and avant-garde. 

In one thrilling scene, we watch the budding composer as he imagines himself to be a dancer from MGM musical On the Town, for which Bernstein wrote the music – a bold exposé of his hidden desires. Later, we watch as he conducts from within a church in a lengthy, near-unbroken take, a goosebumps-giving showcase of Bernstein’s real life talent – and in his approximation of the job of a conductor, Cooper’s commitment to the role.

The script, sharp and naturalistic, is heavy on overlapping dialogue, rendering Bernstein and Felicia’s relationship as something that always feels lived in and intimate. Structurally, Cooper splits his film right down the middle, giving us an opening stretch in period black-and-white, charting Bernstein’s rise to prominence, before transitioning to colour at what feels like a personal crossroads for its conflicted characters. 

It’s a movie that builds slowly, like one of Bernstein’s compositions, gaining more clarity and substance the longer it goes on, before pulling Felicia into focus at the midpoint – and with it, the film, initially heavy on Bernstein, appears to reveal itself.

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Bernstein is played at various stages of his life by Cooper – first as a young man of boundless, childish energy; later as a quieter, more brooding soul – in a transformation of incredible commitment, hugely impressive in its attention to detail, emphasising the subtle changes in voice, and posture, as the years go by and the hair gets greyer. 

Cooper’s Bernstein is charming, quick witted and flamboyant, but he can also be irritating, careless, and secretive. At times, it’s entirely possible to forget you’re watching the same actor, especially as he subtly contorts his body to locate the evolution of Bernstein’s physicality.

maestro netflix

Credit: Netflix

But it is Mulligan, as Felicia, who impresses most of all. Every word, every smile, every gesture seems to conceal something deeper and more complicated than what is being conveyed on the surface. This movie, thankfully, is not a simplified reframing of a woman as “the real genius behind a genius,” but instead a deeply sad look at lives lived, and unlived, within the confines of a marriage that defies the usual perimeters. It’s a quiet, unshowy turn, but one hinged on a deeply felt poignancy that perfectly matches the film’s passionate ambitions. 

Certainly, one could argue that Maestro eventually plays too hard on the saccharine notes, especially towards the end as Felicia’s health comes into question. But part of the movie’s appeal is its make-or-break emotional intensity, a risk and a creative choice that won’t be for everyone, but will be sure to resonate with those who can get on the director’s wavelength. Cooper’s sincere grappling with his subjects, his refusal to judge any of them for their part in the story, ensures this as a sweeping portrait that feels perfectly matched to the unconventional lives of its subjects.

Less accessible than A Star is Born, perhaps, but more formally interesting, complex, and strange, Maestro locates a place of unmistakable melancholy that really resonates, and proves Bradley Cooper, the director, as something of a maestro himself.

Maestro premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The film is currently slated for a 22 November cinema release in the US before a global Netflix release on 20 December. The film will also play at the BFI London Film Festival

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