Bradley Cooper is no stranger to prestige films, and his latest has been giving many the sense that he’ll once again be involved in some conversations come awards season. This year, he stars in and directs Maestro, which centers on the life of acclaimed composer Leonard Bernstein. The biopic, which is set to be released on Netflix later this year, has earned a considerable amount of buzz and, based on the trailer, Cooper is coming for all the Oscars. Of course, no one had actually laid eyes on the full movie at that point. Now, however, critics have screened the A-lister’s latest endeavor, and they have some passionate thoughts about it.
When it comes to this particular production, there’s certainly a level of pressure for the lead. Not only does he have to embody the spirit of one of the music world’s most renowned artists, but this film also marks his first directorial effort since the Oscar-winning A Star is Born. It would seem, however, that the actor-director has more than risen to the challenge, as pundits who saw Maestro at the Venice Film Festival this weekend were enthralled by it. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney commended the film for telling a more nuanced account of the musician’s life than one might expect:
Amplifying its force with thrilling use of the subject’s music, this is a layered examination of a relationship that might be grossly over-simplified today as that of a closeted gay man and his ‘beard.’ But Cooper and co-screenwriter Josh Singer dig deeper to depict a unique union, fraught with conflicts yet unbreakable — even when it’s broken.
While aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s career are covered in the movie, the crux of it is his complex relationship with his wife of 27 years, Felicia Montealegre. Playing that role is the Academy Award nominated Carey Mulligan, and she apparently does so to great effect. Many would probably say that on the surface, this is a vehicle for Bradley Cooper. However, if you ask Ryan Lattanzino of IndieWire, he’d likely tell you that this movie – which he mostly enjoyed – belongs to Mulligan:
… ‘Maestro’ is a technical triumph in terms of checking all the boxes of multihyphenate-ism — Cooper funnels himself into the project at every creative level — but this handsomely made Oscar-tailored package actually belongs to another person entirely, and that would be Carey Mulligan, playing Bernstein’s wife of nearly four decades, Felicia Montealegre. … To play the sparky Costa Rica-born actress, Mulligan puts on a kind of Transatlantic accent and later a deep, worn-in inner graveliness by the end of her life, cut off by cancer in 1978. Mulligan is wonderful and never overwhelming or overstating in portraying a woman who never set aside her own ambitions for the sake of her husband — even while having to stand by in the wings of his greatness.
The director’s work in front of and behind is being lauded as well. When it comes to the former, much has been said about his decision to wear a prosthetic nose while playing Leonard Bernstein. Some accused him of participating in “Jew Face,” though Jewish organizations and Bernstein’s own kids have defended him. Stephanie Zacharek provided a layered take on the backlash in her own glowing review for Time:
Cooper both directed and stars in the picture, which has already courted some controversy over the prosthetic nose he chose to wear for the role. (Bernstein was Jewish; Cooper is not.) Some have seen Cooper’s choice as anti-Semitic, though Bernstein’s children, and the Anti-Defamation League, have defended it. On the quieter side of the argument are those who simply find a fantastic honker insanely attractive. Cooper’s nose is perfectly fine, but Bernstein had a great, distinctive, sexy one. If you’re playing a character who was wildly alluring, to both men and women, why wouldn’t you want to emphasize one of his most distinguishing features?
While many have seemingly been taken with Maestro, not everyone is totally impressed with it. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson praised the performances of the two lead actors and made note of the film’s commitment to directly tackling Leonard Bernstein’s queerness. Nevertheless, Lawson, believes the film becomes uneven as it attempts to balance various facets of Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre’s lives:
Maestro’s omissions and selective inclusions, its veering between epic romance and impressionist portrait of an artist, make the film hard to grab onto. Bernstein’s mercurial character—his blue fugues and insistent ego, his generosity of soul and spirit, the luminous output of his mind—are stated more than felt, despite so much beautiful music and imagery churning around him. We get a sketch of a marriage and a fainter sketch of an artist’s path, neither as fully developed as one would hope for from such an ardently invested and exuberant film. Cooper, a lifelong Bernstein fan who has done a heap of research and then plucked out what he deemed the salient parts of the story, can’t stay focused enough on one task.
Of course, this is also a movie about music, and it sounds like it certainly succeeds in delivering on that front. Deadline journalist Peter Hammond, who praised the film as a whole, had nothing but kind words for the way in which the decorated composer’s work is utilized:
Among the many musical highlights is one set in a London Cathedral where Bernstein is seen conducting an intense classical piece. It is utterly thrilling to watch Cooper embody the complete physicality and intensity this man put into his musical work, truly awesome and Cooper, who had been obsessed with conducting even as a young kid, clearly put everything he had learned about the Bernstein heart and soul into this performance. The music, and the way it is used throughout is a star player itself, certainly a reason to see this film in a theatrical setting with state-of-the-art sound systems, even if it eventually is going to be streaming on Netflix. The sound mixing work , along with other production aspects are top notch.
So it would seem that Bradley Cooper has another cinematic hit on his hands, based on these reviews. If this is all any indication, then it’s very possible he and Carey Mulligan will be competing for some major awards over the next several months. Regardless of what happens there though, it would simply appear that Cooper’s filmmaking abilities are growing, and that’s an exciting prospect for anyone who’s enjoyed his work or simply loves movies.