Film review: Maestro (2023)

I had been looking forward to seeing this biopic because Leonard Bernstein was a charismatic multi-talented artist, composer, conductor, and teacher who seemed to enjoy not only creating music and but also making it more accessible to regular people. The film is really a joint biopic focusing on the relationship between Bernstein (played by Bradley Cooper) and his wife actress Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan), starting with when Bernstein is just 25 years old and catapulted into fame when he is called in at the last minute to fill in as conductor of the New York Philharmonic when the regular conductor fell ill, and was a rousing success. His career took off after that.

But I found the film to be a let down. Especially in the first, half I found it difficult to get engaged with the lives of Bernstein and Montealegre. Their acting did not seem convincing, artificial, as if they were trying too hard. I am not a high-brow viewer who usually notices such things so for it to register with me is telling. Also for some reason, the first fifty minutes of the film was in black and white, then abruptly changing to color. I later read this article tries to explain why. The article also said that the film’s aspect ratio switched from time to time, something I had not noticed. (Did I mention that I am not a high-brow viewer?) I kind of get the reasoning but found it jarring while watching it and wonder about the benefits of making artistic choices in films targeting the general public that only a few will appreciate or, if they even notice, will be baffled. Often the dialogue was unintelligible, making it frustrating. Since I was screening the film, I had the option of rewinding the film but that would have broken the continuity. The story was also disjointed, with some scenes that lasted too long and others that did not seem to serve any purpose.

There was also not as much music in it as I expected. There were fleeting appearances by other luminaries of the music world such as composer Aaron Copland and choreographer Jerome Robbins (with whom Bernstein worked on West Side Story) neither of whom played any significant role in the film. Even West Side Story, which is perhaps what most people will associate with Bernstein, gets only a passing mention.

The film got better in the second half and there were some good scenes in which Bernstein and Montealegre grapple with the complexities of their relationship, especially his affairs with other men that she knew about and tolerated but wanted to keep secret from his children, and his love of being a public figure in the spotlight and at the center of attention at the expense of his family. Mulligan was excellent and her role is given almost equal weight to Cooper’s and it was fitting that in the acting credits she comes higher than Cooper, a generous gesture by him, given that he was also the director and a producer and writer and the person who project this project to the screen.

At the beginning I was also distracted by the earlier controversy about Cooper having had a prosthetic to making his nose larger to make him look more like Bernstein and whether this was feeding an anti-semitic trope. I found myself constantly looking at his nose.

Fortunately, as the film went on, I was able to get past that. But because my attention had been drawn to the issue, I have to say that the makeup was excellent, something that I would normally not have noticed. (Did I mention that I am not a high-brow viewer?) Both Cooper and Mulligan are shown aging over many decades and it was very well done, especially the scenes where Bernstein is shown in extreme close-up as an old man at the end of his life and career. This was not done by CGI. I read that the make up artist Kazu Hiro is widely praised and sought-after for his meticulous and painstaking attention to detail that results in such realistic results.

At a time when some of the most valuable franchises in Hollywood are filmed on soundstages, and are heavily reliant on computer-generated imagery, the work of effects artists such as Hiro remains meticulously tactile, with a trial-and-error approach that’s largely unchanged from Smith’s heyday. Hiro’s craft requires an understanding of anatomy and kinetics, the way that threads of muscle tense when we smile or wince, as well as a mastery of makeup technique, sculpture, and hair work. Digital effects can now morph or de-age anyone, and they demand less time from an actor. But producers and directors seek out Hiro for the sensitivity of his touch and for his ability to translate what he sees.

“Maestro” begins when Bernstein is in his mid-twenties and ends shortly before his death, at the age of seventy-two. Hiro created five sets of prosthetics for the stages of Bernstein’s life… The most difficult years for Hiro to re-create were Bernstein’s final ones. Even late in life, Bernstein was flirtatious. Cooper felt that the seventy-something Bernstein still needed to look a bit “sexy.”

Hiro hadn’t seen the final version of “Maestro” before the screening in Venice. For a few minutes, he found it hard to enjoy the film. He was still thinking about the press conference and how fixated people had become on the nose. “Everybody, before they watch the movie, they know about it,” he said. “The work has to be convincing enough to make them forget about it.”

So it is a film that is interesting because of its subject matter but one that I cannot whole-heartedly recommend.

Here’s the trailer


  1. Pat says

    I was really looking forward to this film. I can’t understand half of Cooper’s lines! Why the crazy accent spoken in a low tone. The whole thing feels stagey and disjointed, like I’m totally on the outside of a very incomplete story. I’m little more than half way thru and I don’t even want to watch the rest!

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