Following a meteoric rise to fame, conductor / composer Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) marries acting starlet Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) and raises three children (Maya Hawke, Sam Nivola, Alexa Swinton). However, throughout the years, Bernstein maintains a double-life where he frequently has passionate affairs with men, such as composer David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and clarinettist Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick). While at first, Felicia is accepting and aware of it, their arrangement soon proves to be far more challenging...
Biopics are generally focused in on the stuff normally summarised in a Wikipedia article or covered in an austere documentary. The moments are fleshed out with dramatic licence, with carefully reconstructed performances, and with an eye for how it connects to the wider image of the subject. When you look at something like 'Oppenheimer' or, more recently, 'Napoleon', you get the sense that it's a high-wire act between examining the character and the scale and the impact of their achievements. Yet in 'Masestro', Bradley Cooper's direction, performance, and his script with Josh Singer couldn't be less concerned with Leonard Bernstein's career and achievements.
Even though he was a tireless educator, popularised classical music through his groundbreaking work on television and made it accessible to all ages and social strata, and was at the forefront of social activism, we see almost none of that in 'Maestro'. Instead, the movie is less of a biopic and more of a deeply felt, searing examination of a life and a bond between two people that is often characterised by romantic disharmony. Even in that, however, it's not the kind of tear-soaked, handkerchief-twisting drama. It's far more real and lucid. What it essentially boils down to is an honest examination of what it must be like to be in love with someone who is pulled to all things, at all times, and often without a thought to what it does to those around him.
Carey Mulligan receives top billing in 'Maestro', as this is very much her movie and will likely place her in the middle of the awards season. The way in which she embodies the role of Felicia Montealegre, and plays it with such generosity and care is kind of incredible. There's a heartbreaking moment, near the end of her marriage, when she describes a date with a potential suitor - only to find that he's, in effect, the same man she just left. "I guess I have a type," she says, with a finality that is absolutely heartbreaking when taken in context. As for Bradley Cooper, we can see how much of it is wrapped up in careful study and how much of it has come out. The voice and the prosthetics appear showy at first, but eventually that slips away, and we can see that there's a real performance at work. Cooper is careful never to give a direct answer to what makes Bernstein tick, instead making us realise that he's beyond simple categories and explanations.
Indeed, the words homosexuality or bisexuality is never really mentioned throughout 'Maestro' as it's ultimately kind of reductive for the story Cooper is trying to tell both in his direction and in his performance. Even when Maya Hawke's character, Bernstein's eldest daughter Jamie, confronts her on-screen father with rumours about his sexuality and infidelity, his answer and his reasoning for it isn't as simple as a lie or the truth. The shades and colours of life are evident throughout, even when it's black and white in the early portion of the movie. More than that, the scenes between Cooper and Mulligan are played out with an emotional depth that goes way beyond the sort of showboating acting you'd expect from an Oscar-adjacent movie like this.
When compared to 'A Star Is Born', there's a lot more going on in terms of the depth and the performances here in 'Maestro'. Where the former was a two-hander with Lady Gaga, here it's a star and a supporting performance. Cooper, as both supporting performance and director, gives ample time and space to Carey Mulligan in delivering quite possibly the strongest female performances of the year. 'Maestro' rejects easy categorisation, much like its subject matter. It's not quite a biopic, not quite a romantic drama, but it is compelling, beautifully made, and filled with deep characterisation by its cast and script.