I tend to find epigraphs to films akin to a post-screening Q&A. When the film is good, I want to run out of the theatre and prolong the film’s, you could say, after effects. And when the film is bad, I don’t need more reasons to dislike it. Except in the case of Joan Didion’s hilarious epigraph to Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, opening quotes can feel like cheating. Bradley Cooper begins Maestro, the film he stars in, directs and co-wrote with Josh Singer, with a quote from Leonard Bernstein: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” The epigraph sets up Cooper’s ambitious intentions for the film, but it also feels like a promise that the film doesn’t deliver on. What are Maestro’s questions and contradictory answers? And are they the right ones to be asking?
Cooper and Singer jump around between the decades to show Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) at different stages of his life and career. The 1940s and ‘50s scenes are shot in a sharp, high-contrast black and white film stock that makes the film feel hyper-real. The ’60s, ’70s and ’80s scenes, shot in rich and grainy colour, track Bernstein’s evolving success and his increasingly tense family life. The film is most interested in his open marriage to Felicia (Carey Mulligan) and his unstoppable productivity. Bernstein juggled conducting, composing and teaching for most of his working life. “I love too much,” he says in one scene.
Cooper himself may love his subject too much. There is a sense in which Cooper attempts to mimic Bernstein’s medley of interests and desires through the form of the film itself. In an early scene, Bernstein is chosen as a last-minute replacement for guest conductor Bruno Walter. Cooper shoots the scene in a still, long take with a closed blind engulfing the frame in near-darkness. In the next moment, the camera flies through the Carnegie Hall auditorium, ending in a close-up of Cooper staring out onto the stage that is soon to be his domain. The blind is drawn, and the curtain lifts. Bernstein was known for mixing “low” and “high” art within his performances. It is difficult to parse out if or how Maestro also does this. Is the long take high art, and the crane shot low? Maestro is too serious to have fun with it.
The film’s first half often feels rushed, jumping from one scene into the next, as if mirroring Bernstein’s seemingly boundless energy. If the second half feels more patient, it nevertheless gives off the feeling of being orchestrated from different sections of the pit. Cooper is at once too close and too far from his subject. His pantomime feels correct but too studied, lacking in the spontaneity and insight that a character study should provide.
For many Netflix subscribers, Bernstein might be familiar, but few can speak to what it was like to turn on their TVs in December 1949 to watch a Jewish-American conduct one of the Big Five orchestras at Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t just his ethnicity that set him apart from the classical crowd. It was also his sensual conducting style. Bernstein conducted with his whole body, as if possessed by music that only he could control. What would that have been like for audiences at the time — Jewish or non-Jewish? As a biopic, Maestro does little to recreate this kind of discovery for the film’s audience. In this regard, there is little sense of history throughout the film, despite it spanning so many turbulent decades.
And Bernstein was not apolitical. Towards the end of his life, when the Berlin Wall was coming down, he conducted an orchestra made up of musicians from all over the world in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. His “Young People’s Concerts,” which aired on CBS throughout the ’50s and ’60s, made classical music accessible to an entire generation of Americans. He was also a firm believer in the state of Israel, playing a historic concert after the Six-Day War. And yet Bernstein’s political beliefs are largely absent from the story.
Cooper and Singer write Bernstein as if he had emerged outside of time. And perhaps he did. Are geniuses born or do they emerge from specific contexts? Either way, Singer and Cooper’s disinterest in Bernstein’s convictions outside of music betrays a lack of imagination. ■
Maestro is now playing in Montreal theatres. It premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, Dec. 20.
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