As the overture to Candide blazed away during the ovation for Maestro at the Venice Film Festival, three members of the audience flung their arms around in an imitation of Leonard Bernstein’s conducting style. They were his children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, and their reaction said it all. Bradley Cooper, the film’s star and director, had pulled off a piece of cinematic chutzpah worthy of Lenny himself. His secret? The last quality you associate with the most embarrassingly flamboyant genius in American musical history: understatement.
It’s easy to imagine the ghastly three-hour biopic Cooper didn’t make. West Side Story goes from near-catastrophe to wild triumph. Children all over America are goggle-eyed with delight as Bernstein unveils the treasures of the classical repertoire. Lenny and Felicia throw that notorious “radical chic” cocktail party for the Black Panthers, deliciously mocked by Tom Wolfe, with male actors in those hilarious long-haired wigs that Hollywood plonks on their heads to show that the 1970s have arrived. Mahler’s scores are milked ad nauseam as Bernstein’s hysteria dissolves into puddles of self-pity. He realizes he’s never going to be acclaimed as a great composer — and, yikes, his looks are fading. And it could finish with that last concert at Tanglewood, a cancer-stricken Lenny almost dying on the podium — wouldn’t “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde be perfect?
The dialogue has the rapid-fire quality of His Girl Friday
Thank god we’re spared. The whirling camera catches some of those moments, but only when they’re relevant to its subject matter, which is not the career of Leonard Bernstein but his marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre. Carey Mulligan shows flickers of pain at her husband’s gay philandering — but it’s mostly showing, not telling, because that’s how Maestro is choreographed.
Consider the dazzling five minutes that begin with a young Lenny and Felicia lunching on a sun-drenched terrace with Serge Koussevitzky, revered conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He tells Lenny to give up musical theater so he can become “the first great American conductor” — a reference to the fact that every major US orchestra was directed by a foreigner. And lose the name, he adds. Koussevitzky himself, Reiner, Szell, Ormandy — they were all Jewish but none of those surnames was as in-your-face as Bernstein. He suggests “Leonard S. Burns,” at which point Felicia has had enough. She drags Lenny away from the table and they skip on to the stage of his ballet, Fancy Free, where the young sailors sweep up her sexy husband and won’t let him go.
Not a frame is wasted. We’re still in black and white; the lighting is so authentically fierce that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t shot seventy years ago. The early dialogue has the rapid-fire quality of His Girl Friday, delivered in those quaint semi-English accents that drift towards standard American as we hit Technicolor. From then on, the exchanges are so naturalistic that we could be eavesdropping, but what we can make out is devastating. When Felicia loses it, she knows where to plant her stiletto. “You weren’t up on that podium allowing us to experience the music the way it was intended, but throwing it in our faces,” she tells Lenny during a Thanksgiving shouting match in their penthouse overlooking Central Park. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen.” Seconds later, a giant Snoopy glides past the window.
Bernstein was certainly lonely at the end, but that was because Felicia went first, dying of lung cancer twelve years before him. Was she right about his conducting? Cooper gives us the full histrionics in the only example we see, but it’s the end of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, which was written to be thrown in our faces.
On the other hand, we’re also shown Bernstein meticulously coaching a student in a few bars of Beethoven’s Eighth. Like every other conductor, he misjudged performances but unlike some of today’s big names he didn’t phone them in. When he wasn’t stabbing and levitating he was watching, hawk-eyed, anticipating tricky entries and tweaking dynamics with miraculous skill. Last night I listened to his Rossini overtures and wondered if they’d ever been done better. Leonard Bernstein was the greatest American-born conductor. Despite the cringe-inducing moments in Kaddish and Mass, can you make a case that he was also the greatest American composer since Charles Ives? Cooper’s Maestro sensibly doesn’t try to answer that question. Make sure you catch it on Netflix later this month.