Waving or Drowning: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro”

By Tim RileyDecember 28, 2023

Waving or Drowning: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro”
LAST YEAR’S Tár centered its monster-artist story around a formidable female conductor (Cate Blanchett) drunk on power; seemingly in response, this year’s Maestro answers with a corrective, addressing problems unique to its historical subject, composer-conductor (and Lydia Tár’s “real-life” mentor) Leonard Bernstein. Musicians regard Bernstein’s career with exasperation. On the one hand, he taught a new generation of listeners how to hear the classical canon, danced between platforms high and low, and left a recorded legacy with the New York Philharmonic that, while uneven, still delivers a midcentury glow (chiefly with the symphonies of Joseph Haydn and Gustav Mahler).

But Bernstein lived an exhibitionist’s life and would have been canceled in our own time for flagrant sexual predation that often included his Tanglewood students. By his death at age 72 in 1990, he had given himself over to such hard-living debauchery, and misjudged his own talent so profoundly, that he wound up struggling to salvage his reputation with European orchestras. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth there with an awesome hubris—even for him.

Playing Bernstein, Bradley Cooper steers straight into this epic disconnect between person and gift in his new film, Maestro, the second film Cooper has directed that turns the screen over to his female costar. A Star Is Born (2018) amplified the tawdry alcoholism of a mediocre rock star, Jackson Maine. But Cooper wisely let Lady Gaga carry the movie, redeeming both the tired melodrama and her promise through her character. Maestro, however, reverses the conflict while amplifying the contradiction: Bernstein’s fame overtakes his marriage, but his wife’s mortal illness fails to redeem his character. In both movies, Cooper plumbs indignities only famous men get to indulge. Lady Gaga’s singing surprised nobody, but she earned that Oscar acting nomination Madonna had chased into irrelevance.

Carey Mulligan plays Bernstein’s wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, with shifting currents of feeling, from affection to revulsion, and a fearsome display of calm. She dies of breast cancer in 1978, which turns this story into a daytime Masterpiece Theatre. Mulligan, however, strolls off with the movie with understated daring, like she’s wrestled with real beasts, and brings to the role both humor and abiding intent.

Cooper builds his story of Bernstein around vignettes that won’t make a lot of sense to nonexperts. He avoids some major plot points in Bernstein’s profile (the Young People’s Concerts TV shows, the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1973, and many more moments from his Tanglewood teaching tenure than the one scene in the film) and includes several dazzling set pieces that don’t quite click, like the leap into On the Town for a dance sequence, or his arrival at a Berkshire rehearsal shed as R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blares from his car. Cooper frames the tale by opening with Bernstein at his home piano addressing a film crew late in life, ostentatiously chain-smoking, lost in a reverie of his late wife’s most hackneyed quotes, including: “If summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you.”

The chain-smoking gets flogged as an allegory for fame’s intoxicating fumes; Bernstein sucks hard on his Kents while Montealegre puffs gingerly, sometimes with an elegant quellazaire. We meet Bernstein in his self-pitying twilight, a world figure haunted by a failed relationship.


Cut to his famous debut in 1943, when a wake-up phone call tells him that conductor Bruno Walter is ailing and, at 25, Bernstein will conduct the radio concert that afternoon in his backyard. (He lives upstairs in one of Carnegie Hall’s storied lofts.) Bernstein opens his huge window on Manhattan for the light to pour in, his epic public life about to begin.

Critic Anthony Lane has pointed out how this opening tracking shot, racing between the bedroom and the podium, exemplifies the gaping divide between Bernstein’s public and private selves, back when homosexuality was a crime and the bearded marriage proved the price many wives paid for falling in love with charisma. When Cooper’s Lenny meets Mulligan’s Felicia, they engage in one of those cutesy, singsongy bits that spell out “exposition” in boldface, movie-musical type. The meet-cute goes meta to spell out a savvy self-awareness as they launch their doomed life together.

From early on, Montealegre’s long-suffering path looks both fated and clichéd; you start to wince inside. On-screen, Montealegre gazes at Bernstein with warmth and winning practicality; she asks directly that he practice “discretion.” But his magnetism, so persuasive in public life, devours his relationships, and he seems incapable of simple decencies with people. He expects his family to applaud his finished compositions the way his audience does.

In a lunch scene at Tanglewood, Bernstein’s mentor Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov), a Russian emigré, gives him the old-school chat about changing his name: “No one will ever give an orchestra to a ‘Bernstein.’” Montealegre later agrees, but we never get Bernstein’s own reflections. Of course, in real life, Bernstein never did change his name, and later took the New York Philharmonic on famous trips to Moscow to perform the Shostakovich Fifth to roaring ovations. It is still one of his better recordings. (One measure of the real Bernstein’s glaring self-regard lies in how his hometown players, the Boston Symphony, never hired him in any long-term capacity.) It’s a scene that suggests a major tension in Bernstein’s life that wants more follow-through.

Music buffs might find more to chew on here than general audiences, as the film follows a jumpy scramble of incidents that convey the real man’s manic nature. Bernstein’s career turns into a comedy of self-inflicted wounds, and Cooper lurches between benign conviviality and epic self-loathing. After leading the New York Philharmonic for 10 years, in 1967, the real Bernstein declared himself a composer first and plunged into guest gigs. His fame rested upon his American birth and training, and spread through his interest in popular forms, with 1957’s West Side Story and 1944’s On the Town (especially compared to his elegant and dashing 1965 composition Chichester Psalms for solo boy treble, orchestra, and chorus). Reconciling competing ambitions between the symphonic and the popular captures a key part of his identity when that kind of crossover involved greater compromises on each side. “Legitimate” musicians would never take a Broadway songster seriously, and his musicals (like the 1956 Candide) suffer from his fussy, overweening preciousness. Even now, it’s more common for a popular performer like Wayne Shorter or Rhiannon Giddens to flirt with opera form and get away with it than it is for the Met’s Renée Fleming to pull off Tin Pan Alley material.

That we should treat such stylistic virtuosity as a penultimate ideal exposes a problem in our understanding of style itself. We expect pianists, conductors, and composers to straddle huge aesthetic eras, as if that represents the summit of talent. But we don’t expect this of athletes or scientists, and many fine talents excel in a narrow range of expression. Why does the music world put a premium on “crossing over”? Can’t talent come in many varieties, some focused, others more polyglot? Cooper, who voices the raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy film series, identifies with all these high-low tensions Bernstein grappled with, but the script (written with Josh Singer of 2015’s Spotlight) has more heft than weight. Like Bernstein, it gets carried away with itself.


In real life, Bernstein’s mainstream popularity allowed him to record most of the core symphonic repertoire with the New York Philharmonic, but the critics, especially Harold Schonberg of The New York Times, threw down thunderbolts of invective, accusing him of self-indulgence, distracting flamboyance, and a lack of intellectual rigor. To counter this, Bernstein delivered Harvard’s Norton Lectures with a gripping comparison of Noam Chomsky’s theory of innate grammar to music’s 20th-century tonal dilemma, using Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question as a premise and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony as a dazzling example of musical poetics. Later broadcast on PBS and published in book form, these ideas inspired a generation of musicians to think hard about music history and explore new forms with interpretive dandy.

Those Norton Lectures didn’t do as much for Bernstein’s conducting as they did for his academic stature, but they let his audience glimpse something universal about Bernstein’s pedagogical gift: there, he wrestles with how music seeks to make sense of the world, and how much the great composers still have to teach us. Even before this, with his Young People’s Concerts (1958–72), his TV performances delivered to schoolchildren in a conversational style still make a vivid Classical 101 course, ranging from Bach to Stravinsky, to explain concepts like theme and variation, sonata form, counterpoint, and polyrhythms. They carry a musical wisdom that even seasoned pros consult for insight.

Ironically, the two composers who served Bernstein’s strengths didn’t take up much space in his Norton argument: first, Haydn, the most restrained and controlled of symphonists, became a Bernstein specialty. Something about Haydn’s good nature, saintly control, and angelic pacing spoke to Bernstein in ways that let him guide players through Haydn’s scores the way Fred Astaire glided through song. Very few Beethoven or Brahms recordings from Bernstein match the expert sense of comic timing and judicial restraint he showed with Haydn.

And, second, with Mahler, his predecessor at New York’s podium, Bernstein famously championed a long-forgotten voice. Mahler’s nine symphonies and two larger symphonic song cycles are now part of the repertoire in a way they never were before the early 1960s.

Bernstein can take credit for unleashing Mahler’s epic exasperation upon the modern world, and Cooper portrays the famous ending of the Second Symphony at Cambridgeshire’s Ely Cathedral in 1973 as a product of Montealegre’s implacable resolve. It’s incredibly corny, but Cooper goes ballistic as Lenny Possessed and plays the Mahler scenes more convincingly than Blanchett does in Tár. (If orchestral conducting proves the new acting Olympics, Cooper’s Maestro rebukes Tár with more nuanced fidelity.)

Both these actors flatter themselves, though; a harsher truth lies in how most orchestras play many of these passages beautifully no matter who’s holding the baton.


In the climactic marital confrontation alone in their West Side Dakota apartment, Montealegre confronts Bernstein as the self-hating fabulist, and when she famously declares, “[Y]ou’re going to die a lonely old queen,” he buckles against a truth too true and piercing to deny. After a beat, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Snoopy balloon passes by their window, revealing not just their famous dwelling but also the way that public noise has absorbed them, mocking their most private moments. Mulligan’s Montealegre does not suffer quietly, which makes this a different kind of art-monster movie.

All attempts at redemption only drive Montealegre further away—Bernstein simply cannot fathom selflessness; it’s like a melody he can’t hear. When the cancer descends, Mulligan avoids the Big Movie resolve of Debra Winger or Shailene Woodley to find a more convincing dignity, especially as Bernstein stoops to clownishness. When Montealegre spits up blood into carefully folded tissues, songwriter and family friend Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) asks, “Is there anything I can do?” Montealegre pauses, then shrugs: “Never get a perm again?”

And confiding in Bernstein’s older sister, Shirley (a sly, withering Sarah Silverman), Montealegre tears up the movie clichés by owning her shortfalls. “It’s my own arrogance to think I could survive on what he could give,” Montealegre says. “It’s just so ironic. I would look at everyone, even my children, with such pity because of their longing for his attention. It was sort of a banner I wore so proudly. ‘I don’t need. I don’t need.’ And look at me now … Who’s the one who hasn’t been honest?”

Simply by playing against a woman in pain, the fleshy pomp and smug speaking inflections of Cooper’s Bernstein betray a shriveled soul, a child thrashing around inside a ginormous gift, who finds maturity only at the podium. His selfishness poisons him as surely as her cancer kills her. Only the big screen gives you the chance to appreciate Matthew Libatique’s tart cinematography as it was intended, but the detail will register even for audiences watching at home on Netflix. If Cooper errs on the side of fastidiousness with some gestures, he also captures a certain essence of the man and his times that proves worthwhile.

Bernstein lived a life devoted to chasing the highest aesthetic ideals while parading around like a profligate and a lech. Perhaps Cooper recognizes this as a core Hollywood dilemma: the corruption at the heart of practicing any art that courts a popular audience. Blowing up performances beyond the size of life inevitably distorts both the material and the author.

As the credits roll and you see the real-life Bernstein finish conducting that Mahler Second Symphony again, in front of the famously antisemitic Vienna Philharmonic in 1979, months before his death, hair and arms whirling, you get the conundrum Cooper chased: that of an inspired talent goaded by fame into thickets of gluttony, who held on to a lifeline of self-respect through music as his family drowned.

LARB Contributor

Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. He recently launched the riley rock report audio newsletter. See his personal website, timrileyauthor, for details.


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