The problem with biography, as a genre, is that the task of summing up a life is simply impossible. Biographers write thousands of pages across multi-volume sets in a vain attempt to encapsulate the complexities and nuances of just one person’s life. Filmmakers have to settle for a miniseries if they’re lucky, and oftentimes merely a single film. To tell the story of a life in two brief hours is out of the question. But to capture the essence of a life — this is what the best biopics aspire to. And it’s what Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (2023), based on the life of the celebrated American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, masterfully achieves.
Before we go further, please note that this review will contain some SPOILERS for the film (and for anyone previously unfamiliar with Bernstein’s life). If this is your first time reading a Unicorn Scale, the rating system is explained here.
Leonard Bernstein, for the uninitiated, was the first American conductor to achieve global recognition. He went on to become one of the most influential conductors and composers of the 20th century, writing celebrated scores including West Side Story (1957, 1961, 2021) and On the Waterfront (1954) and serving as an ambassador of classical music to the public.
Maestro, starring Bradley Cooper (who also wrote, directed, and produced it), tells the story of Leonard Bernstein from his rise to fame in 1943 as an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic through the highlights of his illustrious musical career up to his latter years in the late 1980s. But while the film might superficially seem to be about Bernstein’s music, his career serves as the backdrop for the true essence that Cooper set out to capture: Bernstein’s bisexuality.
What I Liked:
The film stays true to Bernstein’s life by depicting his bisexuality with an unflinching and refreshing honesty. There is no subtext or inference that he is, in fact, simply a confused gay man, or a sex fiend, or going through a phase. The romantic and sexual sparks that fly between Bernstein and his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) are every bit as vivid and electric as they are with boyfriends David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick). The conflicts and tensions that these different aspects of Leonard’s love life create — for his career, marriage, and family — form the core of the drama the film explores., estranging him, for a time, from his wife, and causing him to lie to his daughter about his sexuality.
The technical elements of Maestro also came together not only in flawless execution, but in ways that aided the storytelling. The film is a master class in the use of color, texture, and black and white to convey time, mood, and tone. As Bernstein’s world changes over the course of his life — and as the world changes around him — we see these shifts manifest visually not merely with clothing or sets, but with the very look and feel of the cinematography. Despite the silly manufactured controversy over Cooper’s use of a nosepiece, the makeup — especially on the older Leonard — was as good as I’ve ever seen on screen. The soundtrack of the film was also fittingly drawn from Leonard Bernstein’s own repertoire — a fantastic way to introduce Bernstein’s work to a new generation. Other critics have argued that the film doesn’t lean enough into Bernstein’s bisexuality. There’s no pleasing some people.
What I Didn’t Like:
For all that Maestro has going for it, the film still epitomizes what audiences pejoratively refer to as “Oscar bait”, especially with respect to the directing. With a plethora of wide angles, unconventional compositions, and sequences composed of extraordinarily long, continuous shots, Maestro bears many hallmarks of the actor-turned-director who overuses arthouse cinema techniques. The almost palpable hope of winning an Academy Award that radiates from every scene does distract somewhat from the very worthy exploration of Bernstein’s bisexuality. As I type these words, I can already picture the nine-time Oscar nominee Cooper in a tuxedo, sitting in an aisle seat in the Dolby Theater, hands clasped expectantly.
As for issues with the way bisexuality is depicted, aside from the fact that the word “bisexual” is never mentioned (an issue by no means unique to Maestro), the rift that Lenoard’s same-sex affairs put between him and his wife, and the frustration that she expresses over it, may initially seem like a negative portrayal, but by all accounts they appear to be accurate to Bernstein’s actual life. The film has, however, been justifiably criticized by Bernstein’s living children over the fact that the movie version of Felicia seemingly struggled at times to wrap her mind around her husband’s bisexuality, when in reality, she reportedly “knew exactly what the deal was”.
No biopic is ever going to be perfect, and as discussed, the genre itself is encumbered with intractable obstacles. But given the fact that Maestro chooses Bernstein’s bisexuality to be its single most salient focal point, plus the fact that it is portrayed shorn from virtually all of the negative stereotypes so often seen in popular culture, it’s hard to give this film anything less than four unicorns. If viewers take nothing else away from Maestro, it would be that Leonard Bernstein was bi, and that his bisexuality, richly and colorfully depicted, was integral to his life and work. It’s hard to ask for better representation than that.