Thursday, December 21, 2023

Maestro

♣♣♣♣♣/♣♣♣♣♣

"A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." 70-year-old Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) looks back at his life as a conductor and composer which leads him all back to his wife. 1943. Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan) meets Lenny at a party right after his conducting debut at the New York Philharmonic taking over for a conductor who got ill. Despite knowledge of his sexual orientation, the two hit it off right away and form a relationship. By the mid-50’s, they would become a fixture in New York’s high society scene: him as a successful conductor; her as a Broadway actress. Soon they welcome three children and face the challenges of married life. Despite staying married to one another, they begin to pursue separate lives but are brought back together when she is diagnosed with lung cancer.

The acting is top notch. That, we can guarantee. Cooper starts off as a septuagenarian aided by heavy make-up to look believable. He totally vanishes into the role after a few scenes. As Cooper the actor vanishes, all you see onscreen is Lenny the conductor. The suspension of disbelief comes a little bit later for Mulligan because she still looks like Carey Mulligan, but the accent and the physicality of the role eventually takes over. With neither actor outshining the other, Maestro ends up as a labor of love with a balanced distribution of nuanced acting between its two leads.

Both Cooper and Mulligan are likely to be shoo-ins for acting nominations at this point, with Cooper also in contention for either writing or directing nods. Perhaps one underrated crew member would be Matthew Libatique, whose cinematography just leaves nothing to be desired when it comes to setting the mood as the film shifts to classic black and white before transitioning to color that just transports you outright to the 60’s and 70’s. While Cooper definitely had the vision, Libatique went all out with the ambience to match.

We have had our fair share of Oscar contenders in composers and conductors as of late. We had Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s Tár just last year; Andrew Garfield in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom a year prior. Maestro shares some similarities with both projects: the cutthroat world of conductors with the former and the biographical slant of the latter. What makes Maestro stand out is its equal focus on the craft and the family, which allows the narrative to have two lead actors share the spotlight and create a curious case study on the interplay among sexuality, relationships, and career.

Perhaps that is the reason why the film is able to keep your attention despite the subject matter appearing to be a bit niche for a wider audience. Who really wants to know more about the life of a conductor/composer, right? While Bernstein’s immortal compositions do lend a lot in giving you goosebumps as they are utilized as the film’s score, it is his love story with Felicia that serves as the beating heart of the film. Although the couple did not jive well as lovers, it is poignant to witness the friendship and companionship that endured between the two of them even when romance was no longer on the table.

Maestro is an endearing composition that might lose its audience by drowning them in one crescendo right after another, but it serves its purpose well as an ode to the life of a musical legend whose contributions you might be hearing on the daily but just do not recognize. It is nice to put a face to the music, and then realize that the face is that of an interesting human being after all who had led a successful but questionably satisfying life. If you are a fan, you will love this film. If not, you will still appreciate it for the story that it wants to tell.

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