Status: 05.12.2023, 16:04 PM
By: Markus Thiel
An astonishingly good copy: Bradley Cooper conducts the finale of Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony" in minute-long takes. The film will be shown from 6 December. © Jason McDonald
Much of Leonard Bernstein's career and private life is omitted from this film. But what "Maestro" shows is really good. Especially thanks to Bradley Cooper as an egomaniacal conductor.
In the credits, the matter is clear. The star conducts, head-on, with a view of the cinema floor, so to speak. But in the first scenes, in profile, a little averted, white mane, with a smoking fluff between his fingers, you start to think hard: Leonard Bernstein? In fact, it's Bradley Cooper. And the whole debate about whether the actor was politically incorrect when he had a "Jewish nose" glued to him has to fall silent after the first few minutes. It's not about the nose, it's not about fake cheeks, it's not about the wig. It's about a total adaptation. It's amazingly good, frighteningly good in fact.
Cooper didn't copy one of the most famous conductors and composers of the 20th century, he put himself in his shoes. In the posture, in the movements, in the speech style, even in the conducting movements. For several minutes, this film takes the risk, we experience the monumental choral finale of Mahler's Second Symphony. The shirt-tearing emphasis, the emotional surplus of a podium star, which is no longer conceivable today, can be seen there, but really also Bernstein's conducting style, right down to controlling glances and short interjections with the baton. Cooper is perhaps the first movie star to be taken away from conducting – so much for "Tár", the epic about a fictional maestra that came out in 2022.
Above all, Bernstein's love and family life is shown
And now comes the big but. Even if "Maestro", this heavily hyped film in advance, puts Bernstein in the spotlight, what this biopic does not show is decisive: the individual career stages, the exact genesis and success of "West Side Story", Bernstein's role in the Gustav Mahler renaissance or the intensive work in Europe. In general, this conductor is reduced to his importance in the USA – despite the close partnership with the Vienna Philharmonic, for example, or the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. As a result, Bernstein's global role remains rather underexposed.
Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, is more interested in an excerpt from Bernstein's life. So "Maestro" leaves out a lot of things and just taps on some things. But what he discusses, he shows correctly and comprehensively. It is the love story between Leonard and his Chilean-born wife Felicia. A marriage that comes under double pressure. Because here an artist narcissist ploughs through life without regard for the needs of his counterpart. And because he always allows himself to have affairs with men. It is only when Felicia is terminally ill with cancer that Bernstein returns to her and the children.
Carey Mulligan plays on par with Bradley Cooper
At times, the film drifts into the surreal, when young Leonard imagines himself as a dancer in a musical. And at one point, the always rushed, over-the-top protagonist puts on the brakes, it's like the general pause in a piece of music – when he lies to his daughter and looks deep into her eyes: No, of course what is said about Daddy and the men is not true.
In Carey Mulligan as Felicia, Bradley Cooper has a sparring partner on an equal footing. The devoted love, the anger, the slow extinction of this woman, all this is exhibited (almost) without kitsch and cliché alarm. The dialogues between the two, their later verbal battles, sometimes seem improvised. A real, unadorned look into the innermost part of a marriage. The fact that it feels like a pack of cigarettes is puffed away every minute of the film is a gift. And even if the interior views of private life have to be fictitious, everything is plausible. Basically, as this film suggests, "Maestro" could also be the story of an actor or a rock star. Classical music and musicals are "only" foils for the analysis of an egomaniac. And the fact that Cooper is just as egomaniacal in the process, that he controls almost everything in this epic, that he only brings it to the cinema briefly before the Netflix release in order to win the Oscars – this also fits perfectly with a conductor who only perceived his surroundings as a satellite system of a sun.