Biopics often tend to fall into one or the other genre traps. They can feel like a collection of by-the-numbers Wikipedia entries or can seem plainly like a hagiography. Sometimes, they are just stylistic exercises with not enough substance. With Bradley Cooper’s ‘Maestro,’ you expect a similar inside look into the events of Leonard Bernstein’s life. Instead, what you get is an overwhelmingly emotional account of his bittersweet marriage with Felicia Montealegre. The result is a scattershot portrait of their life together. We see the incidents connected by an elusive thread of emotion – almost like how Bernstein’s compositions connected contrasting notes to create a composition.

The film roughly begins when Leonard and Felicia lock eyes with each other for the first time in 1947. Leonard was a music composer, and Felicia was an actress. They both fall in love almost magically, in no time. The script does not seem much invested in the exactness of its events as much in the emotional flow between its scenes. Its fluid style of editing brings together several incidents from their life – not necessarily by logical reasoning but always by an emotional one. We see them falling in love, getting married, having children, and raising them while growing old together – as any conventional biopic does.

Besides that, Maestro speaks about Bernstein’s music and his sexuality. The music is presented in a way that does justice to the sheer force of nature this man was. From the gorgeous black-and-white in the early parts to the slightly subdued color palette in the latter ones, there’s so much to love about Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, which is an absolute joy to experience. The framing choices make their presence felt – where the impact of wide lenses gets heightened in the film’s squarish frames. Although the characters do not necessarily feel ‘trapped’ in those frames, it creates an illusion of their close-knit world.

That is essentially what Maestro focuses on – the intimate bond that Leonard and Felicia experienced in the span of over 30 years of their marriage. Cooper’s direction is miraculous – reminiscent of his earlier heartbreaking musical romance ‘A Star is Born.’ Maestro churns out some magical moments of deep emotional impact with utmost subtlety. It simultaneously feels like a time capsule and a timely narrative of a family – which can also happen even in the present.

The characters do not shout or scream out their strong feelings, and we rather experience them like real-time accounts – fused with an indescribable, mystical feeling. You sense the impact of some of its relatively unimpressive writing because of Cooper’s execution style. Even the parts that try to replicate the symphonies, the audio-visual experience is absolutely ravishing. The use of silences and pauses, along with the crescendos in Bernstein’s compositions, are so well constructed that they feel cinematic but not tacky – as such film sequences can feel like.

Maestro (2023)
Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in ‘Maestro’ (2023)

Maestro’s introduction to Bradley Cooper as Bernstein is no effective from the get-go. As such portrayals often feel, it seems like a put-on imitation, in the film’s first few moments. It may have to do with the prosthetic nose and Cooper trying to get close to Bernstein’s vocal mannerisms. I badly hoped it not turn to into a performance like Rami Malek’s in Bohemian Rhapsody, where the imitative aspect takes the joy out of many of its emotional moments. Luckily, Cooper gradually wins you over without letting his acting (and makeup) choices hinder the emotional impact.

The real powerhouse, however, is Carey Mulligan – who portrays Felicia with dignity and conviction. From the sheer joy of meeting Bernstein to experiencing the gradual decay of herself due to unavoidable circumstances, she portrays a range of emotions without melodrama – when there was every chance, she could have played it over the top. The scenes showing the family crumbling apart and trying to save itself from the inevitable become effective – particularly because of her nuanced performance.

While being in a marriage with a legendary personality who struggled with the affairs of his sexuality, Felicia had to accept them as parts of her life must be painful. Still, Mulligan shows Felicia’s emotional strength with the required brevity. Although Sarah Silverman isn’t particularly impressive, Maya Hawke gives a mature performance as the couple’s daughter, Jamie. Her screen presence demands your attention even when her character isn’t the center of attention.

Also, Read: Aattam (2023) ‘MAMI Film Festival’ Review


However, the part where the film falters is its writing. It does not explore Bernstein’s musical genius adequately and presents his sexuality as just an obstacle to his ‘happy marriage.’ This might be because the film focused primarily on his married relationship. Still, it does not stop this from feeling like a blot on an otherwise impactful film.

Another qualm I had with Maestro is its scattershot approach to appaorching its subject matter, as mentioned before. It oftentimes limits an absolute submission to the film’s emotional overtures. This is precisely where the film is supposed to win you over. I’m all in for showy editing choices until it does not take you away from the narrative itself. But with Maestro, the randomness is gets too distracting at times.

Maestro had its Premiere at the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023.

Maestro (2023) Trailer

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