Maestro Mania

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Yannick Néget-Séguet coaches Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein. PHOTO: JASON MCDONALD/NETFLIX.

The essential trait shared by creators of movies and symphonies is vanity. Neither form of expression would exist without the unshakeable belief of the director or composer that the entire concert hall or cinema audience, the millions of stay-at-home devotees of yore gathered around the radio or, nowadays, in front of personal screens ranging in size from postage stamp to beach blanket will remain enthralled by the epic gifted to the world by the Artist and executed by underlings and epigones.

Even the most notorious Hollywood megalomaniacs could hardly surpass the me-centric grandiosity of Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper tries his damnedest.

Lenny wrote Broadway hits (West Side Story) and flops (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), a powerful and poignant motion picture soundtrack (On the Waterfront), serious music (symphonies, a mass and more), conducted the world’s greatest orchestras, and was a major television personality. Cooper writes, directs, and produces movies. He’s done comedy and tragedy, won his directorial stripes on the big screen with A Star is Born, and sang his way with Lady Gaga to a Grammy, though not to the Oscar that his Maestro now gropes desperately for. Like Lenny, Cooper yearns to be a star and an Artist of hefty intellectual timber swinging his baton like an axe.

This Bernstein biopic is tailormade for, and by, Cooper’s ambitions. The director-writer-producer-actor of Maestro steps right into the Lenny persona, and his decade-spanning wardrobe too, from classic suits of the 50s to wide crimson ties with pressed pink shirt and khaki sport jacket, and also a beige leisure suit (with a louche kerchief tied around the neck), this candied variety anchored by the white-tie-and-tails uniform of the maestro in full rapture.

Cooper wants not just to play Bernstein but to be Bernstein. This need sticks out not like a sore thumb (I forgot to add to the list of Bernstein’s brilliance his gifts as a pianist), but, as the French say, like the nose in the middle of the face.

It’s a big nose.

This now much-derided accessory worn by Cooper (au milieu de la figure) points not just into the cameras that Lenny loved having film him but to another truth that proves a real problem for the film. Bernstein was perhaps the most filmed classical musician of all time.

The longest stretch of conducting comes 90 minutes into the movie during a reenactment of the close of a 1973 performance in Ely Cathedral in England of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor: “The Resurrection.” The work calls for a massive orchestra (among its forces are ten trumpets and ten horns and in the final, fifth movement an organ), solo voices and a chorus.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera observes Bernstein/Cooper first from the middle of the orchestra, a yearning horn calls somewhere behind. The intensity builds in an inexorable crescendo. After cutting away to the chorus and tracking past the begowned alto and soprano soloists, the camera takes a position directly in front of the podium, inching still farther forward as if caught in the gravitational pull of the conductor’s irresistible charisma. Cooper bobs and weaves, slicing and sawing, hugging and massaging the air, raising his arms in palsy touchdown signs, caressing himself, punching and pulling the score from the musicians encircling him, as if seeking to rout the paradox of the conductor, the only musician who makes no musical sound but enacts the music’s creation, indeed believes himself to be its very creator in that sublime succession of moments that he hopes will never end but must.

A remastered television broadcast of the original is available on YouTube. Here’s a surprise: Bernstein is better at playing Bernstein than Cooper is.

Still, one has to admire Cooper’s dedication to his craft. Coached by the current artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Cooper delivers the best screen actor’s conducting that I know of. It’s true that, on repeated viewing, Cooper’s Mahler climax quickly becomes unconvincing, whereas Bernstein’s doesn’t lose any of its oomph, even if many will be unable to endure too many servings of this hyperbolic dish. The long-time music critic of the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, thought Bernstein’s conducting was more show—Broadway show—than music, and Cooper goes all in for his Resurrection showstopper. After all, Bernstein’s podium performance was also an act, one he believed in absolutely.

Just before the closing credits, Cooper includes some archival footage of Bernstein conducting his Kaddish Symphony. This coda might be seen as much a tribute to the maestro’s extra-exuberant style as to Cooper’s mimicry of it.

The Mahler excerpt, which claims three minutes of the film’s two-hour running time, comes just after his wife Felicia (played with long-suffering bleakness by Carey Mulligan) has confided in her sister-in-law (a pitch-perfectly cast Sarah Silverman) that the troubles within the Bernstein marriage, one that yielded three children, was not Lenny’s love of men. He had been open with her about that, she tells her confidante and us. Rather, Felicia was the one who was dishonest, not admitting to herself that she refused to acknowledge that she could not do without him, that she lived for Lenny’s attention. After the last chord of the Mahler, we see Felicia’s radiant face in close-up. She too has been transported by her husband’s visionary brilliance. But death looms behind one of the cathedral’s massive pillars. We cut from the echoing aftermath of the Mahler and Lenny’s apotheosis to a New York doctor’s office and a diagnosis.

A two-hour biopic has to be selective in dealing with a life, and it is too easy to criticize a film for omissions and rampant license. But instead of a complex engagement with the acts of music-making Maestro expends most of its energy painting a pallid portrait of a marriage that is sometimes fraught, but ultimately redemptive.

Libidinous, sexually omnivorous omnivorous or not, come with the territory, and Maestro flails away trying to bring out its main motif—Bernstein’s refusal to be boxed in by the hetero-paradigm. There is much name-dropping of, and a few quick appearances by the group of Lenny’s mentors and colleagues—among them Aaron Copland, “Jerry” Robbins, and Steven Sondheim. We see a pair of naked bottoms and a same-sex kiss on 5th Avenue. The internal conflict in the soul of the conductor who would rather be composing provides a secondary theme, but this one also lacks dynamic arc and texture. Attempts to imbue the film with the sweep of history and the excitement of celebrity come across like missed entrances and random sforzandos in a very mezzo-forte movie.

The film opens with late-in-life Lenny sitting at the Steinway in his Connecticut country estate, the ever-present cigarette in hand. The maestro says that he misses his wife, sees her take out the laundry and hang it up outside on the lawns that spread down to Long Island Sound. That task was below Felicia’s affluence, but Lenny’s ghostly vignette is meant to speak to her supposed role in his life: serving his career and providing convenient, if porous, cover for his non-conformist sexuality.

This is a disservice to husband and to wife. Both were political. For his leftwing views and affiliations Bernstein came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee, though he was never subpoenaed. The State Department froze his passport and he was blacklisted by CBS in the 1950s. Lenny and Felicia were ardent critics of the Vietnam War. They supported Eugene McCarthy against what Lenny called the “empty-headedness” of Humphrey and Nixon, both of whom, the Bernsteins rightly thought, would prolong the war and continue the “psychotic” foreign policies of the United States.

In April of 1969 the Bernsteins held a fundraiser at their Manhattan apartment for the legal defense of members of Black Panther Party arrested during a Harlem police raid.

A decade later Bernstein signed an open letter calling Israel’s West Bank settlement policy “morally unacceptable.” These outspoken positions and public engagement are laid out in Barry Seldes’ Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician.

Black skin appears only once in Maestro, at the very end of the film when Bernstein coaches young conductors at a summer program at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. He instructs and flirts with a Black maestro-in-the-making. For Bernstein, music was a mode of seduction—of entire audiences and, even simultaneously, individual objects of desire. Later that night, on the dancefloor of a disco bathed in red light, Lenny sweats and sleazes all over the young man, who seems to encourage, if with a whiff of indulgent solicitude, this close encounter of the Lenny kind.

Instead of mounting a complex, dramatically potent investigation of art and life, politics and performance, music and megalomania, Maestro makes do with sex and set design; a prosthetic nose and podium pantomime; lots of cigarette smoke and even more ego. Cooper is truest to Bernstein in making Maestro all about himself.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at