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'Maestro' chronicles the brilliant Bernstein — and his disorderly conduct

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in <em>Maestro.</em>
Jason McDonald
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro.

The new biopic Maestro, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, tells a nuanced story of the larger-than-life musician Leonard Bernstein. While the iconic conductor, composer and teacher was the propulsive force in any room he walked into, this film is a sympathetic, sensitive portrait of his wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn, and their marriage.

Bernstein's chaotic, irrepressible energy always seemed to extend in a million different directions at once. That's clear from his own music for both the concert hall and the stage, which is cleverly woven in and out of this film, in effect becoming its own suite of characters. But the heart of Maestro is the story of Felicia.

Born in Costa Rica and raised in Chile, Felicia is played here by Carey Mulligan, who captures Felicia's patrician, pan-continental accent and steely resolve in a masterful performance. The real Felicia was a working actress when she met Leonard. She also knew, even early on, that he was bisexual — and that she was going to have to ignore his side relationships to take on the role of a lifetime: Mrs. Maestro.

"What day are we living in? One can be as free as one likes without guilt or confession," she tells him when they become engaged. (In reality, they became engaged, broke it off, and eventually decided to give their relationship another go.) "Please, what's the harm?" she continues. "I know exactly who you are. Let's give it a whirl."

She didn't just give it a whirl: They were married for more than 25 years. Leonard Bernstein was an infamously messy human being, particularly in his later years ... and Cooper doesn't shy away from that in Maestro. In one scene, for example, we see the elder statesman Bernstein teaching at Tanglewood — putting a far younger conductor through his paces during a daytime coaching, then pawing at the same young man that night on a hazy dance floor.

Cooper, who produced and co-wrote Maestro as well as directing and starring in it, could easily have painted Bernstein as a narcissistic monster, like the lead character in last year's film Tar — but he doesn't. He doesn't quite excuse him as a tortured genius, either. It's more a portrait of a man who contains multitudes, and both the joy and hurt he casts on others. But the gravitational pull of Maestro is always the duet of Lenny and Felicia, regardless of their relationship's strange rhythms.

One of the film's most rancid — and memorable — lines comes straight from their daughter Jamie's 2018 memoir, Famous Father Girl. In the film, Felicia and Lenny are fighting in their fairytale apartment overlooking Central Park West, just as a giant Snoopy floats by the window during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. "If you're not careful, you're going to die a lonely old queen," she cries out.

(Years later, he tells a young adult Jamie, after she's heard rumors about his dalliances, that they're all lies spurred by jealousy of his talent.)

But along with all that sourness, there is also sweetness, such as in this tender exchange: "I'm thinking of a number," he says as she laughs and makes several wrong guesses in their private game. "It's two, darling."

"Two," she answers dreamily.

"It's two, like us, darling," he says. "Like us, a pair. Two little ducks in a pond."

The film brims with energy from Bernstein's early years, cast in black and white, to the super color-saturated, drug-fueled 1980s. Its dazzling visuals match the music — and yes, somewhere in there, Maestro is also a movie about making music.

Cooper isn't the most believable Bernstein, despite a prosthetic (and arguably problematic) nose and makeup — the well-documented voice isn't quite right, nor is its cadence. But Cooper still captures a fair amount of Bernstein's dynamism, especially as a conductor. In one extended sequence in Maestro, he leads Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 2 in a recreation of a famous performance Bernstein conducted at England's Ely Cathedral in 1973.

The camera rests on the conductor as Bernstein channels one of his own heroes — and it's one of the longest, uninterrupted sequences of music on film in recent memory, while Mahler's epically scaled music washes over the viewer like a tidal wave.

That moment feels like Bernstein's ultimate reason for being — and perhaps the only opportunity he has to escape himself.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.