Maestro- The Life, Loves and Music of Leonard Bernstein

One of the joys of summer holidays is doing a catch-up of all the films and content available on streaming services. Nothing like escaping the heat, choc-top in hand and being transported to another world for two hours.

Let’s side-step. Do you know about Leonard Bernstein? He featured prominently in my life at the age of  eleven. I was a below average, day dreaming student at Arthur Mee Secondary Girls’ School in Nottinghamshire, UK. Our music teacher Mrs Land was ferocious. Think Rottweiler. The music room was her castle and you entered knowing there was only one voice there that mattered. Along the walls of this narrow room with its wooden desks, ink wells, metronomes and music stands, were a series of photographs. Leonard Bernstein looked down on me sitting in my desk from his  11 x 20 Photo frame.  As my mind wandered during class and Mrs Land’s voice became a hum, Leonard Bernstein spoke loudly. His piercing eyes, large nose and the intensity of his stare told me this was a man who knew stuff, lived on the edge and had secrets! Fast forward……. me at 74, sitting in the Nova Cinema in Australia, still with this image of Bernstein active in my memory bank.

I really like the actors Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan so seeing the film  Maestro was top of my “must see” film list. Cooper has written, produced, directed and acted in Maestro, a biopic about the life of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Even the critics of Rotten Tomatoes write ” Maestro is a towering and fearless love story between Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre Cohn.”

Maestro demands an  intense engagement from the audience. This is not a film that let’s you sit back and munch popcorn while the story lazily unfolds. It’s set in the 1940’s and spans 30 years. Bernstein has a clipped, breathy, nasal accent that at times is hard to navigate. Carey Mulligan, as his Cuban wife also speaks in  an airy, melodic voice that demands attention. The film is a story about Bernstein’s passions for music, men and the woman he loves. It’s a biopic of his rise as a composer, teacher and musician. A complex man… a man of his time and the wife who supports his talent and his ego.

It’s a good film. There’s a lot going on while the story is essentially fairly straight-forward. The film starts in black and white and then changes to a limited colour palette. There’s the 8 minute scene of Cooper conducting his masterpiece. There are fabulous scenes of New York arts set parties in the 1970’s.  Carey Mulligan  shines in this role and her nuanced performance is a counterpoint to the exuberance of Cooper and his prosthetic nose.

At times it all too much and with a good story worth telling and fine actors Cooper shows he’s still leaning as a director….sometimes.. less is more… I wonder what Mrs Land, the music teacher, would make of her hero as portrayed in Maestro? 

Maestro is screening in cinemas and also available on Netflix.

8 January 2024 | Arts

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