In “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper Leaves Out All the Good Stuff

Making things up is part of the process of making a bio-pic. The question is whether abbreviations and approximations serve as springboards for a director’s imagination or whether they’re just shortcuts—and from what to what. The center of “Maestro,” which Bradley Cooper directed (and wrote, with Josh Singer), is the bond between Leonard Bernstein (played by Cooper) and his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Their relationship begins in 1946—Bernstein, in his late twenties, was in the early stages of his musical career, and Montealegre, nearly four years younger, was a rising actress—and ends with her death, in 1978, when Bernstein was world-famous as a conductor and a composer. The prime conflict in their relationship is Bernstein’s sex life: he was bisexual, and most of his relationships, prior to meeting his future wife, were with men. To center that conflict, the movie cuts out a crucial decade and a half in the couple’s life, leaping from the mid-fifties to 1971 as if his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, their turbulent life during the nineteen-sixties, and Bernstein’s political complications in those years were just yada yada.

The drama of “Maestro” (streaming on Netflix starting on Wednesday) begins on November 14, 1943, the day that Bernstein, then twenty-five, became famous. As the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he substitutes at the last minute—for an orchestra concert that was being broadcast nationally on radio—for the celebrated conductor Bruno Walter, who’d fallen ill. When Lenny (the character, distinguished from the real-life Bernstein) gets the crucial call that morning, he’s in bed with a young man named David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Soon thereafter (in movie time; in real life, two-plus years), Lenny meets Felicia (the character), at a party at the pianist Claudio Arrau’s house, in Queens—it’s just about love at first sight. Yet their engagement extends for years owing to Lenny’s hesitation; Felicia goes into the marriage with no illusions, telling him, “I know exactly who you are.” She achieves fame as a dramatic actress in the early days of television, and also acts onstage, but puts her career aside to do whatever his career required, along with running the Bernstein household and raising the couple’s three children amid Lenny’s whirlwind of activity.

The formative years of Lenny’s career and the first years of the couple’s marriage are filmed in black-and-white, and some of these scenes—Lenny playing serious musical games with Aaron Copland (Brian Klugman), joshing around creatively with Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie), and watching a rehearsal with Felicia of a dance from “On the Town” in which he’s suddenly, fantasy-like, a participant—have a vital, youthful creative exuberance. These early scenes of Lenny’s rise culminate in a scene of the conductor reaching the end of a concert, received by the audience with roaring acclaim. Lenny runs offstage (to the sound, plastered onto the soundtrack, of the exultantly melancholy Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony), he and Felicia share a passionately congratulatory kiss, and he goes back out to take another bow, leaving Felicia alone, facing the camera, cigarette in hand. Cut to 1971 and to color, with Felicia, in a mint-green dress, her back to the camera, at the family’s apartment in the Dakota—cigarette in hand (essentially reversing the view of the previous shot). She and Lenny are hosting a party, where Lenny meets a young guest, a musician named Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick), and is instantly smitten with him. Felicia catches the two men kissing in the hallway and, moments later, criticizes Lenny: “You’re getting sloppy.” It’s implied that Lenny has been having sexual relations with men throughout their marriage but that he has been sufficiently careful to keep them out of her purview, and out of the public eye. But, with Tommy, Lenny is indiscreet, if not in public view, then, at least, in Felicia’s presence. Lenny grows increasingly unhappy with the hypocrisy of a double life, and he and Felicia separate, only to reunite. When she’s diagnosed with cancer, Lenny stays at the family’s rustic Connecticut home to care for her and to hold the family together.

Throughout “Maestro,” Cooper, as writer and director, proceeds by way of indirection. He seems unwilling to lay the story, the characters, the dialogue, the action, the drama on the line clearly, plainly, frankly. The movie proceeds by way of hints and winks, understatements and elisions, that are part of a transaction between director and audience: with a word to the wise, the audience gets the idea of Lenny and Felicia that Cooper wants to put out. The movie’s general lack of candor matches its scrupulous avoidance of controversy and complexity, which does no justice to the complex and controversial characters at the center of the film.

There’s a tendency, in considering bio-pics, to rummage through published biographies and play gotcha with whatever the filmmakers have omitted. It’s a bad critical habit, but the temptation to do so responds to a feeling—the sense that many of these films tone down or filter out realms of passion that don’t fit into sentimental Hollywood templates. It’s the feeling that the famous people at a movie’s center are far more complicated, and in far more conflictual relations with their times and their peers, than popular movies are likely to let on. When the characters’ emotions are missing, it’s natural to search for the practical circumstances that gave rise to them. The danger of yielding to that feeling is that one spends more time and effort thinking about what a movie isn’t than confronting what it is. Yet this emptiness, in its way, often proves—as it does in “Maestro”—so pervasive that a movie seemingly undermines itself. For all its turbulent action and extravagant expressiveness, “Maestro” is hollow; even its strongest moments play like false fronts, like veneer far fuller, stranger, more struggle-riddled lives.

Lenny, like the real-life Bernstein, was extraordinarily accomplished in a wide range of musical activities. He was a great conductor, a talented pianist, a gifted teacher and public emissary of musical culture, and a major composer of concert music (including symphonies and song cycles), popular musicals and operettas (such as “On the Town,” “Candide,” and “West Side Story”), and movie scores (including “On the Waterfront”). “Maestro” suggests, in a crucial early scene with the Boston Symphony’s venerable conductor, Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov), that Lenny’s sideline of composing popular works posed an obstacle to his coveted appointment as the elder man’s successor; Koussevitzky considered it to be out of keeping with the high-culture dignity that the position demanded. Lenny persisted in composing for the stage nonetheless, and with great success; he also craved recognition as a “classical” composer, and this proved harder to achieve. At the same time, it was clear to him that the public role of a conductor invited scrutiny of his private life that the essential indoorsmanship of composition wouldn’t.

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