How do you define a good performance in a movie? Obviously, it changes depending on what the role calls for and the project in which it’s occurring. But one (overly general) rule of thumb is that the audience forgets they are watching an actor and become entranced by this wholly realized person on screen. By that metric, lead actor/co-writer/director Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” is easily one of the best of the year as it is powered by two of the greatest acting turns in 2023. Cooper and co-star Carey Mulligan fully disappear into the roles of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre, respectively, to create fully fleshed out people that are borderline hypnotic to watch. While there’s a fair bit of “Maestro” that doesn’t particularly excel, the two leads carry it all on the backs of their superlative work, which eradicates any sense of theatrics to reveal painfully human moments that resonate with authenticity.
Of course, this is based on the film as presented by Cooper (and co-writer Josh Singer) as they tell the story of the relationship between Bernstein and Montealegre over multiple decades. The brilliant composer and conductor is revered by millions around the world, while Felicia has some measure of respectable renown in her own field of acting. But the source of their strength, and more than occasional tension, is their willingness to be completely honest with each other. Bernstein is bisexual, with probably stronger sexual proclivities with men, and while American society of 1940s-1970s is not accepting of such a concept, Montealegre embraces it. She loves her (eventual) husband, wholly and fully, and accepts that if she wants to be with the man she loves, she must make room for this part of his life and self. Bernstein also deeply loves his wife, but the conflict arises in his ever-abundant ego from his increasing success, accomplishments, and accolades that only feeds his need for indulgence and exacerbates any space that exists between the couple.
“Maestro” deftly navigates their lives like one large symphony flowing between movements and musical pieces. Cooper wisely never announces the years or awkwardly shoehorns in references to alert audiences of the dates in which events occur. In fact, it’s as if time is moving around these two—they are in the spotlight while the set is changed on stage. There is the addition of children, the switch between their beloved New York City and the sanctuary of their home in Connecticut, the introduction of new suitors, and the accruing of the trappings of aging. But at the center of all of it are Cooper and Mulligan. They each speak with a bit of affected mid-Atlantic accents that feel transported from the screwball comedies of the 1940s or the high society cocktail parties of Manhattan in the ‘50s. This is bolstered by their natural exchanges with each other; there is a witty banter at play, but also a sense of rhythm in how they talk to one another (including often over each other) that only happens with those most intimate of relationships. Make no mistake: “Maestro” never ever suggests that the two have it easy, but there remains this amazing symbiosis between the two performances that is completely lived in and genuinely compelling.
These transcendent performances are aided by the gorgeous cinematography of Matthew Libatique. The black & white portions of “Maestro” expertly use light and shadow to create sumptuous images where it’s solely the eyes of the lovers that sparkle in the dark, or it’s the blinding spotlight that illuminates the screen. Later, in switching to color (to denote a change in decade and increasing shifts in the relationship’s dynamic), Libatique finds a way to use the modern architecture and colors to craft a tapestry of opulent distance; a beautiful coldness as the space grows between the two. The musical performances—both the literal ones by Bernstein and his orchestras as well as flights of fancy in which the film indulges—is captured impeccably by Libatique’s camera so the beauty of the movement and the power of the sound resonates into the hearts of viewers. By visually portraying such audible accomplishments, the audience better understands not only Bernstein’s brilliance but the swirling emotions that fuel him and his lovers (including Montealegre).
However, all aspects of “Maestro” are not as strong as the camerawork and lead performances. The script gives short shrift to all supporting roles, with two of the couple’s children barely having any sort of character at all. The lone one with any personality, played by Maya Hawke, feels more like a plot device than a human. Similarly, few of Bernstein’s lovers are much more than filler types that have no depth. Furthermore, Sarah Silverman plays Bernstein’s sister while Brian Klugman is Aaron Copeland, with both feeling like impersonations better suited for a variety show than an immersive theatrical experience. It’s obvious this is meant to help bolster the importance and centrality of the main relationship, that all these people are out of focus and in the background of this intense coupling. But it makes for an uneven experience when compared to how natural and complete the main characters are.
To be certain, there is a sort of meandering of narrative. A repetition of events that may have meant to echo those recurring motifs in music, and cyclical patterns of behavior, but can feel like dwelling on the same point to exhaustion. “Maestro” soars on the backs of Cooper and Mulligan, and their incredibly complex chemistry, but too much around them feels too drab. It may be a device, but it makes for a feeling of background noise that interrupts and overcomes the core of the film.
Cooper has crafted a true work of art and fulfills the promise of “A Star Is Born.” “Maestro” is flawed, though so are the compelling figures at its heart. It’s a romance set in our complicated world with our complex feelings and relationships. Even when we find someone with whom we can be our authentic selves, that doesn’t mean we know who our authentic self is. Through exemplary performances, Cooper and Mulligan capture these feelings and these characters as real people which makes these points of ever expanding and breaking hearts feel all the truer. Sometimes love isn’t enough, and sometimes it’s all that sustains us, and often this wide range is found within the same relationship. Watching these vulnerable and profound portrayals creates its own symphony of honesty about the maze that lies inside all of us and will leave you hoping someone will help navigate it.