Thursday, February 1, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Maestro (2023)

Rollin' right along with this year's Oscar Film Journal....

Today's movie is the Bradley Cooper-helmed biopic about Leonard Bernstein, entitled Maestro, in which a barely recognizable Cooper also plays the title role beneath some absolutely stunning makeup (about which there was some quite unnecessary to-do online).

The film documents Bernstein's rise to fame and prestige as one of the world's eminent orchestra conductors and composers, set as the backdrop for the film's real focus, his roller coaster relationship with wife Felicia Montealegre (an always fabulous Carey Mulligan).  Using numerous film formats (mostly 4:3) and color palettes (the first act is shot in glorious high-contrast black & white), Cooper and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born) plunge us right into Bernstein's topsy-turvy world of music, parties and torrid affairs (mostly with men).  We follow the composer and his marriage from the mid-1940s to Felicia's tragic death of cancer in the late 1970s, and the camerawork and art direction really capture each era splendidly.

Less effective is Maestro's structure, which follows the tried and true biopic format - a series of important moments and episodes in the lives of these two people, almost entirely in chronological order.  Had Cooper et al found a less conventional way of assembling the screenplay it would've resonated much more strongly I think; the film keeps us a bit at arm's length, both in terms of never quite letting us past Bernstein's public persona, and via first-act dialogue that's so snappy and 1940s-esque it's hard to keep up with at times.  I did however appreciate the script's Orson Welles approach of having characters talk over each other as people tend to do in real life.
What does set this film apart from other biopics though is its visual finesse and use of editing (or sometimes lack thereof).  Many of the key conversations between Leonard and Felicia are handled in single takes, sometimes very wide shots showing us background activity (as in a heated argument in front of two windows overlooking the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade), sometimes in single-point perspective shots (as in an awkward poolside exchange where both characters are barely visible).  There are a few moments where Leonard is speaking in front of students and we're directly behind him, obscuring his facial expression entirely.  Cooper's scene blocking and choice of camera angles is often surprising, perhaps deliberately echoing Leonard's "always on" persona by never quite showing us what he's thinking, just as in A Star is Born where the camerawork was usually in handheld closeup to convey a sense of uncomfortable intimacy.   

Maestro at times feels like a companion piece to ASIB, Cooper once again portraying the wildly successful but tortured, usually medicated musician whose self-loathing prevents him from ever really letting in the most important person in his life.  The sequences of Leonard conducting often carry the energy of a rock concert, his flamboyantly animated performances providing him the only true moments of peace and self-satisfaction.  This was a man who loved music so much he only felt himself while making it, and who loved people so much he became addicted to intimate contact with them.

All in all Maestro is another win for Bradley Cooper as a director, though I didn't find it quite as effective as ASIB.  Leonard and Felicia's dissolving marriage (and her cancer-induced disintegration) would've been all the more heartbreaking had the script let us in a little more.  But I really admire Cooper's instincts behind the camera; he always finds new ways to show us things even if the screenplay doesn't.  And of course both performances are Oscar-worthy, receiving numerous well-deserved nominations.  Cooper continues to show his chameleonic abilities and Mulligan is incapable of anything less than a great performance; maybe she'll win the gold this time to make up for being robbed three years ago.

I give Maestro ***1/2 out of ****.

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