(***1/2)-VITO CARLI

"The biggest crime this film commits is it only very good in an excellent year..."

Well-Orchestrated Musical Biopic Deserves Applause

(020824) Maestro is a splendid and beautifully shot biopic about the seminal 20th Century composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, who eventually became one of America’s most well-known and beloved music figures. He was known initially for his classical music (such as his renditions of Wagner), in the genre he was most at home with. But he later experienced his greatest popular music success with his score of West Side Story which was made into thousands of theatrical productions and two well movie productions.

The film was deemed to be fairly accurate (with one exception which I’ll get to later) by music historians. The film makers benefited from the compliance of the composer’s family, and the co-writer/director Bradley Cooper was able to get access to hundreds of Leonard’s personal letters. The settings of the film are also accurate, and the movie was often shot on location at the real places Bernstein was at including Carnegie Hall, Ely Cathedral and Tanglewood.

Maestro deals as much with Bernstein’s messy and troubled love life as his music. He was married to a woman but had many extramarital affairs and flings with men despite the fact that he had a loving, faithful and devoted partner. This has caused some to speculate that he did not come out or publicly reveal his true nature as a bisexual because, like Freddie Mercury he feared the repercussions to his career. In one early scene, he tells his fiancé: “I want lot of things” while he looks longingly at a young actor who he wants to seduce.

The film does not focus very much on his Jewishness or his spirituality, and you do get the sense that he believes in a divine force which manifests itself most directly in his music. This is counter pointed to an early scene where modern audiences get a whiff of how prevalent and powerful anti-Semitism was at the time. Early in his career, another musical figure suggests that he change his name to Berns because, as he insists, “To a Bernstein, they’ll never give an orchestra.” But his partner, Felicia does not relish the thought of known forever as “Mrs.Berns.”

The whole supporting class is just terrific. Especially Carey Mulligan as his wife (who was also excellent in An Education and
Promising Young Woman) and she managed to score a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. She is a totally convincing as the woman who loves Bernstein although it pains her to realize that she is never enough for him. The comedian Sarah Silverman (I’ve always loved her standup) is also excellent as Felicia’s best friend and confident who advises Felicia in all romantic situations.

But Bradley Cooper gives the most impressive performance, although at this point I think he is a much better actor than director. Cooper transforms himself (much like Cillian Murphy did in Oppenheimer) completely both in terms of speaking style and appearance. If I was not aware it was him in advance, I probably would not even recognize him. There is virtually no similarity between his character here and his role as the alcoholic star Jackson Maine in 2018's A Star is Born. Again Cooper turns in a first-rate performance which elevates the film which serves to elevate the production to more than just formulaic bio-pic movie of the week. Cooper has of course been nominated this year for best actor which gives him a career total of being nominated a whopping two times for Oscars. Unfortunately, he is likely to go home empty handed again. Experts all say that Paul Giamatti for the Holdovers (a film I liked much less than Maestro), and Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer have decisive leads in this year's race. But Cooper is well liked by Oscar voters and it seems that he will eventually get his day.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes captures perhaps Bernstein’s greatest moment-the second his whole destiny changed. At the last minute at the tender age of twenty five, he was asked to fill in for an ailing elder composer and he was so magnificent that he caused a sensation at Carnegie Hall. It’s impossible not to share in Bernstein’s glory and childlike joy when he find outs that after years of struggling he has finally come into his own and become a musical heavyweight.

The film includes a relevant quote from  an Edna Vincent Millay poem: “If summer doesn’t sing in you/then nothing sings in you” and  Leonard continues it with “if nothing sings in you can’t make music.” At one point the quote is repeated when Bernstein is dancing with a young man in a dance club that he desires, and you get the sense that the Bernstein is justifying his trysts with much younger men as a way to avoid boredom so he can stay excited and continue making music. The poem was very important in the lives of both Bernstein and his wife and it directly inspired one of his masterpieces, “Songfest.”

Another crucial moment is captured when he meets the great love in his life, Felicia Montealegre at a party. They clicked right away both in real life and in the film although in the film she often seemed to love him more than he loved her. Later we see them playfully exchanging lines on stage with and listening to music together. She was an actress and a big part of what draw them together is their mutual love of the arts.
One important part of her life which is not dealt with very much in the film is that there was a very early separation of Leonard and Felicia, and during that time she dated his friend Richard, who also had same sex relationships. Although he appears briefly in the film and his death was mentioned, he was much more important in Felicia’s real-life counterpart than is shown in the film. She dated the actor for five whole years and if he had not died she might have married Richard instead. Yet in the film the character only momentarily appears.

Leonard proposes to Felicia in a big scene and although she loves him, she answers nonchalantly: “I know exactly who you are. Let’s give it a whirl”. This seems to imply she knew about his bisexual nature. But you kind of get the feeling he settled down with her (using young men on the side as desert) more than anything because it was what a man of his age and time was supposed to do. In one of the couple’s low points, Bernstein pursues a young man, Tommy in plain view of his wife, Felicia. He invites both of them in a country retreat and tries to minimize the bad appearance when he claims to just be bringing an interesting young man into their social circle. The canny Felcia knows better and doesn’t like it one bit, and she especially doesn’t want their daughter to find out. This of course wounds her but it is nothing compared to how she feels when she finds out one of Bernstein's greatest works is dedicated to his young paramour. It seems likely that Bernstein thought that because he was a genius he deserved to get anything or anyone he wanted at any time.

Eventually rumors about his same sex dalliances interfere more with his family life, and his daughter hears disturbing gossip about her unfaithful dad. At the insistence of his wife he categorically denies the rumors, but you can’t help but wonder if he would have done the same if his time period were less homophobic.
But the film does show that the art crowd is more accepting of homosexual relationships and we see same sex couples at parties and scenes of artists going to gay clubs. We are made aware that the mainstream society fraction of Bernstein’s audience was his bread and butter and they would never accept this aspect of his life. There are some hints of residual anger from his youth in Cooper’s portrayal of Bernstein. He confesses to Felicia that he frequently dreamt of killing his dad and was bulled at school, either because he was a jew or gay, or both. You get the sense that this could be why he wanted to find a place in the more tolerant and accepting world of the arts.

As Bernstein gets older he becomes increasingly more hedonistic and increases his alcohol and drug intake (like many musicians he has developed a fondness for cocaine) and engages in more sexual relationships with young men. He is less able or willing to cover it up, something his wife refers to this as: “his sloppiness.” At one point he tries to rationalize these actions by insisting: ”As death approaches, I believe an artist can/must cast off whatever is restraining him.” He also tells a class of students: “I will live the rest of my life exactly the way I want.” He seems to want the best of both worlds, a stable relationship with a wife combined with complete sexual freedom but the two don’t often mesh well.

Felica seems to initially be aware of her husband’s bi nature and she accepts it and is too polite to bring it up directly. But at one point she confesses to a friend that she will not sacrifice her whole life for Lenny because: “If I sacrifice (too much) I completely disappear,” which is exactly what happens to her at some points in the film. She seems to be putting her whole self into the marriage while her husband only invests part of himself. But at one point in one of the film’s best scene she does strike back, and angrily declares to Lenny: “if you’re not careful you’ll end up as a lonely old queen.” The film never shows us how how he ended up.

This  is like many great artist bio-pic's where the man continually disappoints or misuses his female partner while she suffers in silence (these women should listen to Tammy Wynette’s song Divorce). But Bernstein does not come off as bad as Picasso, Jackson Pollack or even Freddie Mercury. Despite his infidelities, in the end it does seem that he is devoted to her. This comes out late in the film in scenes (which contrast nicely with the sweet rom-com like early scenes of him courting her) when his life is shattered when she comes down with terminal cancer and both suffer unendurable torture.

The ending which is the most perfect conclusion possible shows footage of the real Bernstein, late in his life long after his wife’s death (he lived another 40 years plus after her death but this is glossed over). He is conducting an orchestra in a big hall and is clearly completely at ease and in an apparent state of ecstasy. (he seemed most alive while conducting) Most people probably will never feel that good about anything their whole lives.

Quentin Tarantino has come out recently against bio-pics calling them “corrupt cinema.” He also asserted that they are easy Oscar bait often released at the end of the year specifically to get awards, and that they often reduce a whole life down to the cinematic equivalent of a cliff note’s version or comic book version of a whole life. While I agree to most of his criticisms I must say that Maestro (which I found less compelling than Poor Things of Past Lives) is a superior film in its genre. Also the film mostly focuses on his married years so it never tries to cram too much into the screenplay.

It’s been a great year and some of the other Oscar films are more revolutionary or essential. The biggest crime this film commits is it only very good film in an excellent year when many masterpieces were released. Beause of this I think it will be eternally in the shadow of

Directed by:    Bradley Cooper
Written by:    Screenplay by Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer.
 Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett
Starring:    Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer
Released:    11/22/2023 (wide)
Length:    129 minutes
Rating:    R for language, some drug use, sexual references
 and some violence and some nudity
Available On:     At press time this was available for streaming on

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Mister Carli will conduct the upcoming lecture: "The Complete Character is Nowhere: The Evolution of Frankenstein and His Monster In Films, Comics and Songs" on Wednesday, March 6th, noon-12:50pm, at Moraine Valley Library Lounge (Building L) or streaming eventually on YouTube.

Come to the New Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted.
This is now a monthly show featuring Poetry/Spoken Word, some Music, Stand Up and Performance Art and hosted by Mister Carli. For more information e-mail: for details

Upcoming features at the Poetry Show:
March 2- Gregorio Gomez, Bob Lawrence, Daina Popp, and Donna Voyeur
April 6-Charles Haddad, Don Hargraves, and others to be announced.

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