Maestro Misses its Mark

Bradley Cooper Needed a Director

By: - Jan 02, 2024

The film Maestro reminds us that classical music can be accessible to a wide audience. This is not because the film makes the music accessible. In fact, Bradley Cooper conducting is a bad joke. You wonder what Yannick  Nezet-Seguin, credited with teaching the actor to conduct, was doing. He abandoned an assignment with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra where he is Music Director to go to a Hollywood event with Cooper.

Whether or not you like the music, the odd, freaky gestures, the voice which is not cultured but affected, and the desperate statements in the script that Bernstein loved music and loved people just don’t add up to more than a tiny gesture to a large, complex and highly-gifted man.

Before Harvey Weinstein made promotion the path to film award nominations, this film would have been dead on arrival. These days it commands a lot of talk, including these words. As a filmmaker, I can’t understand why people aren’t put off by the weird angles, the odd cutting and framing, and the generally poor camera techniques exhibited. Olden days in black and white, and color photography as time passes don’t add up to the march of time. A clever friend remarked that Cooper needed a director.

Carey Mulligan's performance as the wife of a bi-sexual-gay-leaning man keeps you glued to the screen. Yet Cooper can not leave well enough alone. Shots of Mulligan watching Cooper kiss a young man called Tommy (probably Michael Tilson Thomas, whose career Bernstein promoted just as his lover, Dimitri Dimitri Mitropoulos promoted his) don’t add up to much. 

The Bernstein marriage worked until coming out as gay became possible. The better lesson here is that all kinds of people can get together and thrive. Felicia Bernstein says she knew who her husband was. No one ever talks about her brother who was gay. He formed a boys’ basketball game and cruised around New York’s Midtown North in a Jaguar picking up young boys. There was a time when women didn't know they had married gay men. Juliane Moore and Dennis Quaid in Far from Heaven captured this. The Bernsteins' marriage contract was fully disclosed. 

Bernstein’s children liked the film. They apparently had a joyful childhood with their father and mother. Some of that spirit seeps through.

The film drives you back to the man himself.

What a contribution he made. He could talk about music so you understood and wanted to listen. His compositions were gorgeous. I can’t imagine his wife calling him “her child” as she does in the film, and also criticizing him for spreading himself thin, which is the classic observation about his career. 

Did Bernstein suffer when he could not live an out life?  We will never know. While watching him rehearse Jose Carreras and Kiri  Te Kanawa – not the viral clip, but the entire recording session of West Side Story, you see a man steeped in music. While Cooper talks about being a classical music enthusiast, it doesn't show in his performance. Whether or not you liked Tar, it is clear that Cate Blanchett has music in her soul and this helps make the film work. Not so with Maestro. Makeup and prosthetics should get an Academy Award, but it would be an insult to filmmaking if either Cooper, the film, or the script did.