Culture  /  Film Review

The Bernstein Enigma

In narrowly focusing on Leonard Bernstein’s tortured personal life, "Maestro" fails to explore his tortured artistic life.

Anybody hoping that Bradley Cooper’s Maestro might provide answers to the central Bernstein enigma—how his populist Broadway instincts fit together with the man who taught generations of Americans about classical music, from Bach to Ives—will likely leave the cinema disappointed. Cooper’s adenoidal delivery of his lines will make you wonder if the maestro suffered a lifelong nasal drip, but he excels at looking like Bernstein, until he attempts to conduct. He has spoken of his film as a love story, and its focus is almost entirely on the complexities of Bernstein’s marriage: the attempts he made to reconcile a sincere devotion to his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and their three children with his attraction to—and brief flirtations and full-on affairs with—men. Carey Mulligan steals the limelight as Felicia.

Netflix was never likely to green-light a film whose hook was the story of Bernstein the musician: Lenny the showman is readily understood; the stylistic labors of a composer caught between tradition and advance are not. Questions about how Bernstein had the chutzpah to imagine one piece I heard at the Barbican, his symphony The Age of Anxiety, in which compositional techniques borrowed from Arnold Schoenberg and Stravinsky smash into big-band exuberance reminiscent of Count Basie, or how he reinvented the fundamentals of American music theater in West Side Story, are therefore never broached.

A few basic facts set Maestro rolling. Bernstein makes his legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943, filling in for a flu-ridden Bruno Walter, but the particulars that lead him to becoming the orchestra’s music director in 1958 are all but ignored. In a head-scratching scene near the film’s beginning, Lenny discusses his new ballet Fancy Free—written in 1944—with Felicia and concludes that he won’t be taken seriously as a musician because this music “isn’t serious.” Fancy Free might have been rooted in swing-era jazz and early Broadway, but the sheer compositional élan with which he transformed those sources, adopting polytonality and tricks of melodic development from Stravinsky, was deadly serious—as the real Bernstein would no doubt have been the first to remind anyone who asked.