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Maestro review - the infinite variety of Leonard Bernstein | reviews, news & interviews

Maestro review - the infinite variety of Leonard Bernstein

Maestro review - the infinite variety of Leonard Bernstein

The music's well chosen, but Carey Mulligan shines brightest as Bernstein's wife Felicia

Bradley Cooper's Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the famous Ely Cathedral performance of Mahler's Second Symphony as Carey Mulligan's Felicia looks onAll images courtesy of Netflix

The only seriously false note about Maestro is its title. Yes, Bernstein was masterly as a conductor, and Bradley Cooper gives it his best shot. But he was no master of his life as a whole. Maybe the title should have been something like Lenny and Felicia (you think of something better).

Broadway actor Felicia Montealegre, the woman he married after an on-off four-year relationship, is depicted as the shrewdest, harshest critic of the man rather than the artist, and though the music is brilliantly handled, Carey Mulligan is the real heart and soul of what Cooper as director and co-writer (with Josh Singer) chooses to show. Her voice is perfectly modulated, with a rich lower register, and it's by no means sunny sanity all the way; she moves effortlessly from the carefree budding star (pictured below with Cooper's Bernstein) to the troubled middle years. Bradley Cooper's Bernstein and Carey Mulligan's FeliciaIn a quietly devastating scene in their New York apartment as carnival floats pass beneath the window, Mulligan’s Felicia tells Cooper’s Lenny that he deludes himself about how he loves everyone. He’s not bisexual or pansexual, he’s homosexual, as she was well aware from the start of their relationship, and she tells him that in refusing to be true to the essence of sexual love as he experiences it, he’s in danger of ending up "a lonely old queen".

How lonely, how sad? He achieved more in a month than many manage in a lifetime. His death came shockingly swiftly, not long after he’d recorded his starrily cast performance of Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra (the only time I met him, at an unforgettable session where his old friend and lyricist Adolph Green was recording the role of Pangloss, thanks to my then boss on The Guardian, Edward Greenfield: the restless energy was so apparent). Scene from 'Maestro'It’s not this film’s brief to go so far, nor to deal with more than a passing reference to his childhood and youth. Some essential details are revealed in recreations of several television interviews, others in passing, like the line of cocaine taken at a party. While there's nothing about Bernstein's ties with Israel, we see the great conductor Koussevitzky telling him over lunch that if he wants to make it further, he needs to change his name to "Burns". Personalities such as Copland, Jerome Robbins, Green and co-writer Betty Comden appear but aren't over-flagged for those unfamiliar with the names. In terms of a chronology that's fluid, and not always strictly correct (but always emotionlly so), we jump straight from older Bernstein at the piano in front of a film crew, saying how much he misses Felicia, to the first stunningly-lit black and white sequence. In superb cinematography by Matthew Libatique, which plays a starring role throughout (an early scene pictured above), the 25-year old is summoned from the bed he shares with clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) to take the place of ailing Bruno Walter at a major Carnegie Hall concert.

The rest is history, and this could be a shallow “and then…” biopic. But Cooper as director and co-author is right to be selective, and we learn some things that aren't in Humphrey Burton’s excellent biography, thanks to the collaboration with children Jamie, Alexander and Nina. Only personal input could make us privy to Jamie‘s distress (well conveyed by Maya Hawke) at gossip about her father, who lies to her because Felicia tells him he mustn’t admit the truth to his daughter. There’s manipulation on both sides of the marrage, especially in the bitter time of estrangement when the camera keeps its distance (pictured below) on the talking-over-each-other quarrels, misunderstandings and awkwardnesses..Scene from 'Maestro'Around this familiar filmic trajectory of an emotional darkening in the middle of the narrative, there’s much joy, and the music used to underpin its alternation with sadness and pain is so well chosen. It would be unrealistic to expect it to go on for longer, though one certainly wants that when Fancy Free, the ballet with Jerome Robbins’ fabulous choreography, morphs into their further work on a bigger three-sailors-loose-in-New-York confection, On the Town, and Cooper cleverly gives us a hint of the Hollywood musical’s fantasy ballet sequence where Felicia gets entwined in the Lenny-likes-the-boys scenario.

The "Simple Song" and its enrichment in Bernstein’s most various masterpiece, MASS, plays out in clever counterpoint to a scene of uneasy family life, followed by a low ebb when the composer, watching the first performance seated between his wife and his younger lover, assistant Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick), takes the lover’s hand, not Felicia's. The most moving sequence of all recreates the end of the legendary Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony performance in Ely Cathedral, and caps its tearful conclusion by reuniting Lenny and Felicia, standing muse-like at the side of the stage.The re-enactment, with completely different camera angles from the original, offers a wonderful tribute to Bernstein's long association with the London Symphony Orchestra; we see its present personnel, led by Carmine Lauri - a rather more rewarding visual experience than the group of nearly all men in the original. The present London Symphony Chorus features too, while Isabel Leonard and Rosa Feola "play" (and sing) Janet Baker and Sheila Armstrong (pictured below). Scene from 'Maestro'As for the conducting, the facial gestures are perfect, the technique and the cueing rather less clear, but it's hard to fault Cooper's total identification with Bernstein's restless vitality, the charm and its flipside; the paunchy, adenoidal older man is uncannily alike. The credits, rolling to the brilliant choice of the middle movement of the Chichester Psalms - peace versus conflict ("why do the nations" in Hebrew), treble solo the UK's big recent discovery Malakai Bayoh - and the Candide Overture, suggest his coach may have been no less than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, unquestionably one of the great communicators among today's conductors, and this time an openly gay one. Nézet-Séguin conducts the LSO in the soundtrack, which would be well worth acquiring by anyone newly hooked on the music.

The beauty of it is that, though there's nothing like hearing all this, especially the Mahler, in a cinema's full sound system, the Netflix release, due in December, will bring thousands more to Bernstein and Mahler for the first time. That's one of many gifts this remarkable film has to offer.

Cooper cleverly gives us a hint of the Hollywood musical’s fantasy ballet sequence when Felicia gets entwined in the Lenny-likes-the-boys scenario

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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