Bradley Cooper the writer is not as Bradley Cooper the actor OR Bradley Cooper the director; that’s the unfortunate truth of the almost excellent Maestro, a wonderfully shot biopic about the composer Leonard Bernstein who rose to fame as America’s first native-born conductor. Sticking with music as his subject matter on the back of A Star is Born Cooper keeps things traditional, old-school Hollywood: it’s a formulaic biopic as they come and that means all the strengths and weaknesses of a biopic structure are there.
The first half of the film is beautifully shot as we follow Bernstein’s early life, the charismatic, attractive Bernstein who quickly falls for Carey Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre despite having affairs with other men. Felicia is okay with this initially; but the older Bernstein gets, the more he struggles to keep it hidden; hooking up with men at a party they’re sharing together in a way that’s so shameless it would make Tomas from Passages a very proud man; both disaster bisexuals that would get on amazingly well. But the problem is that there is a movie within Maestro, and that movie as a collective whole feels mixed, sluggish, uneven – soaring in the more exciting parts of his life but otherwise a really dull and gloomy affair.
The second hour; like with A Star is Born, is guilty of this. When the film flashes forward to the present day it loses its momentum and drops the flair of the extravagant dance hall sequences; for something that looks like it’s going through the motions designed to make you cry. It almost works, but that’s mainly through the power of Cooper’s direction and acting as he’s able to get the brilliance out of key scenes; and lest we forget of course, the wonderful Carey Mulligan – who gives it her all throughout the film. It feels like he’s working within the playbook of the biopic formula like he’s told himself he can’t break it: more depth for Felicia would’ve been nice; and just a greater embracement of the silliness of it all would’ve been welcome as it’s just as bizarre as A Star is Born. Maybe even moreso. It feels like what Tar, ultimately, would’ve looked like had you given it to anyone else but Todd Field. Procedural.
It’s a real shame because this movie on the whole, really worked for me in parts and I very nearly loved it. The spark and the joy in the first half is apparent and almost made me fall in love. The first romance between Cooper and Mulligan is played out with both actors having instant chemistry; the kind that you buy – and the scene where she takes him to a movie theatre and gets him to act is a delight, it’s always fun watching great actors pretend to act badly and the results are always comical every time. Cooper sells every scene with conviction; and he tries to use his position to elevate Mulligan into the leading role but sadly; that is not the case – Bernstein is still front and centre; no matter how powerful a mostly one-take argument takes place between them. Cooper’s talent at getting excellent actors to star opposite him is a trend that he’s continued from A Star is Born: Mulligan is surely within a shoo-in for an awards nominee and this whole film is like catnip for the Academy. But then: maybe, just maybe – that’s part of the problem.
Maestro then; is a mixed bag. The score is great, of course: my favourite moment was a repurposing of Bernstein’s West Side Story score in a moment of inspiration from Cooper, The Rumble hitting home hard and being a great way to escalate the tension in a perfectly innocent scene. It’s moments like these that elevate the film beyond your usual biopic flair: the charisma of Cooper is magnetic and Bernstein is believable as a man who can sweep anyone under his wing, and its strong thematic ideas give it the substance that it needs. I love a film that looks at the separation of the public and private life of a “maestro”; and it – like Tar, to a degree, explores both the booms and the pitfalls of becoming a celebrity: tackling the spotlight head on. This is its saving grace and what elevates it above the low-tier biopics and places it firmly in Walk the Line territory rather than that of Bohemian Rhapsody: it’s a good formula. And Cooper wouldn’t have it any other way.