Bradley Cooper is a multi-hyphenate filmmaker with talent to back up his ambition, which makes him a good candidate to bring the life of legendary American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein—a biography chased by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Jake Gyllenhaal—to the big screen. But Bradley Cooper, while displaying technical proficiency behind the camera, is not a daring filmmaker, or at least, he’s not willing to cross the Bernstein family to make a complex portrait of a complex man. 


Maestro, Cooper’s passion project biopic of Leonard Bernstein, is a mixed bag resulting from a three-way compromise between an artist, a subject, and the subject’s family. Cooper’s boldest artistic swing involves Snoopy—I was not prepared for how much Snoopy is in this film.

Produced by, directed by, starring, and co-written by Bradley Cooper (who co-wrote alongside Josh Singer), Maestro both narrows the focus of “Lenny’s” life and attempts to cover a twenty-year period from the 1950s to the 1970s. The narrowness of the focus is on choosing Lenny’s life over his art—Bernstein purists might be upset that his professional accomplishments, which range from composing scores to musicals like West Side Story and On The Town to becoming the first great American conductor to re-popularizing Gustav Mahler’s works to educating a generation of children about music to…oh it goes on forever. There’s very little Leonard Bernstein didn’t do in the world of music, his talent so broad and his legacy so titanic, it’s almost impossible to conceptualize into a single narrative thread.


And simply, Cooper doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on Lenny’s personal life, particularly, his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre, played with an effective combination of warmth and steely determination by Carey Mulligan. By the end of the film, Maestro is really about Felicia, Lenny’s wife of twenty-plus years, and the title could be interpreted as less a nod to Lenny’s career as a conductor and more to Felicia’s role in orchestrating Lenny’s popular perception, lending him a sheen of respectability in an era in which Lenny could (mostly) not live as an openly gay man. They are engaged in a lavender marriage, one Felicia is aware of and willingly participates in as long as Lenny “doesn’t embarrass her”. 


Maestro is very much about the Bernstein marriage—at times, it feels like a Marriage Story knock-off with a better soundtrack—and the thesis statement of the film is that Lenny could not have done all he did without Felicia’s support, even as his constant extramarital affairs with men, often conducted with Felicia’s knowledge, if not the public’s, slowly grind Felicia down, forcing her into a cycle of constant remonstration with Lenny. As portrayed by Cooper, there is no doubt of Lenny’s sincere love for Felicia, but he also has voracious appetites that will not be curbed, even as his affairs with often much younger men haunt the wife he adores at home. 

Lenny’s queerness is sanitized for the screen; Cooper has little interest in Lenny as a queer man beyond how it impacts his relationship with Felicia. His heteronormative marriage is the point of the film, not his identity as a gay man who cannot live openly until much later in life. And the underlying assertion that Lenny’s success is underpinned by Felicia’s support is never challenged by the natural follow-up question—yes, but what more might Leonard Bernstein have done if he never had to hide any part of himself at all? 


Maestro has no interest in that question. This film is the story of a marriage, and the fact of Lenny’s queerness is treated merely as a quirk, similar to the approach to Lenny and Felicia’s social activism (they famously hosted a fundraising party to benefit imprisoned members of the Black Panthers). There is an acknowledgment of fact, but no follow-up, no investigation, no deconstruction, and comparatively little representation. The whole film feels like an exercise in shoring up the Bernsteins’ image as a loving couple bedeviled by a husband’s wandering eye, Lenny’s homosexual affairs treated as if they are precisely the same thing as a heterosexual affair—the result of personal weakness and not systemic marginalization.

Part of the complexity of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein is acknowledging their sincere affection and devotion contrasted to the inherently unsatisfactory nature of their marriage. In a way, they are like a monarchical marriage of old, a political match that offers both parties certain boons in lieu of greater personal satisfaction. Maestro is uninterested in this framing, in the same way It’s A Wonderful Life refuses to ponder what George Bailey’s life would have been like if he had left Bedford Falls. When a story begs such obvious questions but refuses to even consider them, it makes the narrative feel like a house of cards. Maestro is a bombastic house of cards.


It has a lot going for it, chiefly Cooper’s and especially Mulligan’s performances, but it is a mixed bag of ideas that falls short of the complicated man at the center of the story. It does better as a portrait of Felicia, at least in regard to her importance to Leonard Bernstein. You might walk out of Maestro not knowing much more about Leonard Bernstein than you did going in, but you will emerge with at least some idea of what Felicia Montealegre Bernstein dealt with in life. But flattening the complexity at the heart of their relationship renders both Lenny and Felicia a little less interesting than they should be. Maestro is a surprisingly pedestrian biopic of a force of nature subject.

Maestro is in theaters from November 22, 2023, and will stream exclusively on Netflix from December 20, 2023.

Attached - Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan leaving a Maestro Q&A last night in New York.