When Maestro begins, a quote appears on a black screen, ”A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” -Leonard Bernstein.
Contradictions. This film provokes the contradictions of remaining true to yourself alongside relationships, love, family, and genuine artistic expression and freedom. Societal norms, rules, and laws will create tension between each of these sections, and as an artist, the job is to ask questions that aim to ease and loosen the tension between these contradictory answers, developing society further.
Maestro, a film written by Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer, and produced by Bradley Cooper, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. Our leading actors include, once again, Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre. Bradley Cooper is our leader in this film, directing by example, and moving back and forth on set to camera as Bernstein to discover and parallel as the conductor and passionate leader who created incredible works such as Mass, West Side Story, On The Town, and Candide.
Following the life of Leonard Bernstein, Maestro isn’t so much about his musical achievements, which are many, but his relationship with his wife, to his family, and how that had such a large effect on his artistic expression and self-expression. It’s a film that tracks a contradiction from that age, having multiple partners along with a wife as Bernstein explores his bisexuality. We develop our story through the lens of Leonard Bernstein and his changing and adapting relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre, and the pairing of the two leading actors Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan respectively has a genuine deep connective synapse that shows an incredible relationship on screen.
NOTE: There are spoilers of the movie 'Maestro' involved in this article, I highly recommend watching the movie and then coming back here. Otherwise, proceed at your own risk.
These people were inseparable, what was fascinating was watching these two people in the same room together talking about anything. There was a musicality to it, there was of course a musicality to the way Bernstein spoke, but when they were together they were finishing each other’s sentences. This connected them right off the bat. The way the dialogue was written was constantly overlapping which held onto images of a stage play, while, the creation of this relationship itself started on stage. Eventually, however, as time went on there was more pressure to make sure that Bernstein was not found out to be a bisexual man. His career had continued to grow, Felicia’s career was fading in his shadow, and throughout, you could feel the steady increase of resentment because of this. Soon this overlapping dialogue was no longer jovial and sweet, it became more twisted, using words against each other, interrupting each other, and when you speak all the time, are you truly listening?
For Felicia, though remarkably supportive as a wife, a friend, and a muse in the crafting of Bernstein’s greatest works, she must have felt pangs of remorse and regret as her career fell to the wayside with a quickly growing family. Luckily Bernstein was a great father, though his head may be in many places, he always remained a stable connection for his children. As the family continued to grow though, the contract between them of keeping secrets from their children became increasingly difficult.
Bernstein found it difficult to remain silent about his bisexuality, he didn’t want to be in hiding, no one wanted that for him either, but out of his own safety and career, Felicia felt it was important not to tell anyone, not even their children. I think there could have been some fear of not wanting that for their children and their future. Seeing as there was no foreseeable future for society at the time to accept the truth of people like Bernstein, there was more difficulty in making sure that wasn’t going to be an issue with the children. A parent’s unintentional shortcoming from overprotection. Later in the movie, we get a sense of this as the eldest daughter (played by Maya-Hawke) distances herself from Bernstein.
Around 1976, Bernstein became more open about his sexuality, living with his boyfriend at the time. In the past, he was very open about his liberal political views, he was pro-Black Panther Party, anti-war, and pro-rock and roll. Throughout the film, we see this openness of ideas through Cooper’s performance, and we can infer there was an openness toward change and distaste for oppression because of what truly was happening inside. All eventually culminated in living as his authentic self.
Bernstein eventually moved back in with Felicia when she found out she had breast cancer. In her growing illness, Bernstein took fantastic care of her, keeping her company, playing piano for her, and putting on skits with the kids. Felicia was devastated. I think this was her time to reflect on her past life, what she missed, what she was so proud of, and how she lived her life. It was a heartbreaking moment at this point of the film. She felt so hurt, hurt by many things, not by anyone in particular, but I could feel as if she felt this illness was mentally painful for her. She was no longer the way that she was, she lost the ability of autonomy, and she felt trapped, confined only to her chair, the bathroom, and the bed.
What was so interesting about this point of the film is that throughout it, Bernstein never faltered in choosing his art over others, not in a sinister way, but as a passion for what was true and what was honest within him. His family supported him in this, not without its pain points. But as Felicia was dying, we saw that Bernstein received an offer to perform, but he declined it, putting the needs of his wife and family first. A poignant moment for our character, and deeply painful, the audience empathizing with the sacrifice as he screams into the pillow after gently closing the door so no one in the house would hear him.
At this point in the film we’re summing up the entirety of the relationship between Felicia and Bernstein, the tremendous effort both of them took to keep the skeletons in the closet. All of the success that they had as a couple, the loving family that was created, and the passion they once had for each other come back once again in the final moments. Though we know what will occur, it doesn’t let us let go of Felicia too easily. The final moment occurs but we see the family run outside of the house in this silent scene, only inferring what just happened as they hug and cry with each other, comforting in an embrace.
Though there was criticism I think there’s something important to be said about the work of Bradley Cooper. Some felt that he had been over-acting, but when we watch clips of Bernstein conducting it matches quite dramatically. Bernstein was an expressive individual and often received criticism for his own “over the top” style of conducting, often breaking the rules of classical conducting. It’s only fair that Cooper also receives modern criticism while channeling Bernstein. Watching Bernstein, it’s incredibly zealous and grandiose, and with so much passion and fervor it screams through the video player into the soul of the viewer, I can only imagine what it would have been like to be there in person to watch him on stage conducting. So when I saw Bradley Cooper’s performance, I could witness the amount of work effort, and energy that he put into it, as it portrayed that same level of fearless and passionate creative force that Bernstein did in his archival footage.
Cooper was developing his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein 5 years prior to filming. He visited, worked, and spoke closely with the children of Bernstein, visiting the actual locations he frequented with the eye of a detective, building the character. Cooper, once dreaming of becoming a conductor himself, re-surfaced and realized that childhood dream, sitting in as an observer and student to The New York Philharmonic becoming a regular at their rehearsals and concerts, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, and working closely with his conducting consultant Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It took him a long time to work on this film and the work shows for it, which when it comes down to it, there’s no other way to portray a film like this than to put that work in. The work that’s put into place for a film is shown, and it’s appreciated. It’s the genuine effort and fearlessness that Cooper integrates into his character development that makes for a truly believable performance.
Themes and Contradictions in Maestro
A criticism I did agree a bit with was in The New York Times expressing how it didn’t let Bernstein fail. As an artist myself, and as the writer also was, I think there was a bit of a desire to see more of how Bernstein stepped into his artistic craft. Though the film is solely focused on the intricacies of the relationship between Felicia and Bernstein, we miss a lot of the failures “There’s lots of the man’s defects in ‘Maestro’; the artist’s are nowhere to be found. Missing entirely is ’1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,’ his flop of a musical with Alan Jay Lerner that closed after seven performances on Broadway in 1976. And missing are his three grimly unsuccessful symphonies, the kind of high-minded music he wanted to be remembered for instead of ‘On the Town.’”
Though this was missed what I could sense from the film was its exploration into how these relationships exude past you into the artistic expression itself. The relationships that Bernstein shared with other people that weren’t his wife, and the freedom that he was allowed, and not allowed. What’s portrayed here is a little bit about how Bernstein along with society sort of trapped himself. Though he had room to be free behind closed doors, he was not allowed to express himself as much as he could have in public places. It’s another story of being trapped in the closet, which I think is necessary to continue inspiring truthful expression of the self. Plus it’s a different lens through the eyes of a remarkably artistically successful man. Though some might argue that’s been done before, every new lens is in fact a new lens.
Which brings us back to our quote at the beginning of the film. ”A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them[…]” Bernstein always stayed true to his artistic passion, and the importance of this film marks that there are so many ways to express oneself, especially by becoming a master in your craft which Bernstein was. Bernstein fell into depression too but the importance of his craft always stuck with him, there was nothing that would allow him to falter, not even his family. Even in these low moments, when you go there when you enter in when you open the portals, you’re able and capable of making something truly vital. That which is within you, that which is holed up and closed off, is just as important within the crafting, and that’s what Bernstein did, he kept knocking on that door until it clicked unlocked, and he kept entering, as difficult as it was. He kept trying even if he didn’t succeed with critics.
Maestro is a film at the top of my list, it sat heavily with me, as I reviewed my work as an artist looking in and delving into the life of Leonard Bernstein. I feel like this is the type of Biopic that I’ve been enjoying lately, somewhat subjective, a new take on the life of an individual, such as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer did. Both performances of Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan were remarkably done and with genuine intention. It showed, and I think as a fellow actor, I’m remarkably proud of the work that was put into this and deeply inspired to continue in my own craft. This film expressed the connection of the self and the self as the artist. Both need to be free to truly live and perform fearlessly.
If you have not seen this movie, please do. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Comment below, what questions in this film popped up for you.
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