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‘Maestro’ review: A lackluster overture

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Maestro’ review: A lackluster overture

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‘Maestro’ develops its characters through missing bits, making the film unwhole and underwhelming despite impressive performances and cinematography

This review contains minor spoilers.

A year ago, the masterfully directed Tár, showcasing a career-best performance from Cate Blanchett, told the story of a devious savant – a musical conductor whose fall from grace is unlike anything we’ve seen before. In that film, it’s revealed that Lydia Tár, our sociopathic protagonist, took inspiration from Leonard Bernstein, inarguably the most celebrated and renowned American conductor of the 20th century.

It would be amusing to think that Bradley Cooper, in the middle of crafting Maestro as a six-year-long passion project about Leonard Bernstein – produced no less than Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg – saw Tár and thought to himself: “I’m in trouble.”

Regardless of that passing thought, the pressure that must have dawned on this film at the directing, writing, and acting levels likely exceeded what was expected for a normal “independent” studio film.

It’s a biopic, so naturally, claims of “Oscar-bait” (films designed specifically to get awards attention) are thrown at Cooper and company. But does it reach those sky-high heights? Does it manage a proper comparison to the fictional yet thrillingly modern depiction of an American composer seen in Tár. The answer is no.

And, in any case, I don’t think Maestro bears a proper comparison to Tár; it’s much closer to Bohemian Rhapsody, which is to say, not all that good. The comparisons become particularly fruitful when looking at how Maestro and Bohemian Rhapsody give a premium on the perspective of their protagonist’s partners, both to varying degrees of success.

In Maestro, Carey Mulligan plays Felicia Montealegre, a talented Costa Rican Broadway actress whose life becomes intertwined with Leonard Bernstein at the start of the peak of his career. Bernstein, played by Cooper, is a prodigious composer, a sonic artisan who loves connecting with people through music and companionship. It all gives off the feeling of Leonard living in a universe of his own, light years away from the groundedness of Felicia. 

The film begins in the 1940s, after the fateful day when Bernstein gets a call from the New York Philharmonic to conduct for them after Bruno Walter fell ill. He excels in this golden opportunity and, from there, catapults himself into uncharted waters, becoming one of the finest American conductors of his time. But wait, the poster for Maestro, as well as its synopsis, say that this is about Felicia inasmuch as it is about Leonard. So how come for most of the film, Felicia and Leonard feel so thin as characters?

Maestro develops its characters through missing bits, making the film unwhole and underwhelming despite impressive performances and cinematography. Capturing Bernstein’s life up until he’s in his 70s, Cooper, as both director and writer, chooses scenes from the legendary composer’s legacy that feel like they are the most impressive to film, not necessarily the most impressive when sticked together.

Some are inspired choices, such as the period when Felicia’s deteriorating health could no longer be ignored. But other scenes feel disconnected from the film’s main proposition, which is to be a story about marriage and the void that artistic and public success creates for the other. 

There is a tension in the film that never fully gets resolved. It wants to challenge Bernstein and show the heaviness of his differing personal and professional lives, but you never once doubt that his role as a conductor would ever be in danger, and neither do the people around him. There is a desperate unwillingness to create lasting conflicts or stakes for Leonard, and they’re all resolved pretty quickly. The lasting dramatic tension is funneled into Felicia, which is why she is the most fascinating character for most of the film. 

At best, Leonard’s predilection for flirtatious relationships with younger men coupled with his reluctance to fully immerse himself in the esoteric, high-art realm of classical music, are the chief concerns of our protagonist. There’s a quietly brilliant scene where Bernstein has to quell rumors his daughter (played by Maya Hawke) heard about his sexuality. But then, that conflict with the daughter disappears and gets resolved, transferring that liaison to other things, or bouncing it back to Felicia, whose feelings and ideas about Leonard’s sexuality rarely escape the trappings of clichés.

There’s this desire to see more of their lives, to see more of Bernstein conducting, to know what makes him such a great composer instead of every interviewer mentioning how lucky he was when he got the call to substitute for the New York Philharmonic. But because of the identity crisis of the film revolving around whether or not it is a story about marriage or of a great yet complex man, it falters at properly developing either of those points. 

Even when the personal and professional collide, as seen in the Thanksgiving fight between Felicia and Leonard, the arguments fall flat despite their words being thematically relevant. How? We still have nary a clue about who these characters are in the midst of radical change. We don’t see failure. We don’t see folly. They have a big house and a comfortable living environment but never a hint of what seems to have been lost in the process.

We assume Felicia has sacrificed the most, given her piercing stares and silent exits while in the presence of Leonard’s infidelities. But, save for one or two scenes, that sacrifice never rises above surface-level posturing. Bernstein conducts and you feel the music but nothing for his character. Felicia expresses her discontent and you feel the exasperation but never her interiority. Hidden within the time jumps is a much more promising film in which potent scenes from Leonard and Felicia’s life could have lent richer context.

Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, as usual, is top-notch and effectively carries the film’s sometimes awkward staging. The editing is fantastic and probably has a few of the most creative match cuts of the year. And in terms of standout scenes, the musical crescendo at Ely Cathedral stands out as inspired filmmaking, albeit slightly artificial, and its impact is marred by a perplexing choice of ending. Cooper is also undeniably gifted as a director and an actor. But Maestro is a cumbersome film with a lot to say but not a lot to show for. 

Maestro is now streaming on Netflix.

Rappler.com

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.