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"Maestro" 4K Review

 It's Prestige Movie Season & Netflix's big Oscar-bait entry this year is Maestro, the biopic about legendary composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein that could've been titled Bradley Cooper Demands You Give Him All The Oscars! as the preposterously handsome & talented Cooper follows up his 2018 A Star Is Born re-re-remake with a checkbox-checking biopic that is highly likely to earn him four Oscar nominations personally for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Original Screenplay (with Josh Singer, Spotlight). (UPDATE: It didn't get Director, but it got the others as well as Best Actress, Cinematography, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Sound.)

 Told in three time periods (in a row after a brief late day prologue; not the jumbled cross-cutting Christopher Nolan relishes to his stories detriment) it opens in 1943 when a 25-year-old Bernstein gets the call to fill in for a New York Philharmonic performance, where he's an assistant conductor, after the guest conductor falls ill and the main man is out of town. Despite the no notice substitution, he becomes an instant star in a time when you could become a star for conducting. Since the performance isn't shown, we just have to take their word for it.

Elevated into society's upper echelons, Lenny meets Felicia (Carey Mulligan), an actress at a party and they become smitten with each other which is bad news for his boyfriend David (Matt Bomer). Being the 1940s when no one was openly gay, it was common for gay men to marry and have children, so Lenny and Felicia do just that, well aware of what he is.

The film then jumps ahead to the late-1950s where the couple are being interviewed for a television show and in sly Basil Exposition manner we're caught up on their career successes, especially Bernstein's in the wake of composing the score for West Side Story. But strain is showing in their marriage as his boozing and cruising begins to offend Felicia. As the story moves into the late-1960s, she gets very angry that the gay man she married is seeing men still and that the kids are beginning to catch wind of it, though he fends off his eldest daughter Jamie's (Maya Hawke) concerns by saying it's petty jealous of his unbearable talent.

Though their relationship turns cold, they remain married and he supports her through her losing battle with breast cancer, passing in 1978. The film then bounces to a coda in 1987 where we see him conducting, teaching, and dancing with men to the music of Tears For Fears.

Cooper attempts to do something different with the stock biopic template by dropping in to various waypoints of Bernstein's life as fame and recklessness test his marriage, but as a result almost all of what Bernstein is remembered for - the music - is curiously sideline with the exception of a showstopping recreation of the legendary performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony in 1973 which Cooper says he spent six years learning to mimic Bernstein's movements to actually lead the orchestra. [UPDATE: As John Mulaney joked at Cooper at the Oscars Governor's Awards ceremony he hosted, "We wouldn't have known if you hadn't."]

Ironically, he also doesn't really lean into the sexual aspects very explicitly which leaves us with a movie about a gay musician whom we don't really see making much music or being gay. Cooper said in an interview that he wanted to bring something more than the usual stuff of biopics and that audiences would be familiar with his music, so didn't need to see it rehashed. This is a tactical error of the screenplay because as hard as Cooper and Mulligan work to convey their underlying love even as their marriage disintegrates because, well, dude was gay (which wasn't a surprise), it always feels like we're denied seeing why he's legendary. Biopics shouldn't be deep cut trivia for superfans.

While the script is disappointing, Cooper's direction is superlative. [UPDATE: He deserved to be nominated over three of the actual nominees; the ones not named Nolan or Lanthimos.] He executes some location transitions in a fresh way such as when Lenny and Felicia race in from a patio, viewed from overhead, emerging in a theater balcony. He stages their courtship using the dancer sailors from On The Town, which he'd scored, as a backdrop.

But more than using aspect ratio changes and shifts from B&W to color - Matthew Libatique's cinematography is on point with early scenes a luminous 1.33:1 B&W to evoke the feel of old movies in the 1940s; later ones in color and 1.85:1 widescreen with addition color grading tweaks - which has been used by the likes of Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson to indicate different time periods, Cooper calibrates the performances to mimic the style of acting in those eras. The 1940s scenes are enunciated crisply with rat-a-tat-tat Mid-Atlantic accents (even Sarah Silverman fits in as Bernstein's sister) then become more like Douglas Sirk in the Fifties and even more naturalistic in later times. I wonder how many people didn't even catch these subtle shifts?

Mulligan is practically the lead as the long-suffering Felicia - she's top billed over Cooper - and she makes us understand why she persists in this partially sham marriage even when she could've walked out, though her bitterness at not wanting to tolerate what she tolerated for two decades is her own fault.

Cooper is also excellent. Like Brad Pitt, he's generally been underrated as an actor because he's so damn good looking and he's been nominated four times for acting [UPDATE: this is #5 for acting and he's up to 12 overall!] I'm generally down on imitation performances because there is so much reference footage to work up an impersonation from, but here he sidesteps it by omitting all the stuff there'd be footage to copy and he almost completely disappears underneath the makeup, mostly looking like himself in the early years, totally unrecognizable as the lifelong chain smoker with leathery skin in his later days.

About the makeup, because everything in this timeline is stupid and people just aren't happy unless they're outraged about something, there was some squawking about his prosthetic proboscis being anti-Semitic, playing off the "Jew nose" stereotype, but fercryingoutloud, Bernstein had a prominent honker and King of the WASPs Cooper doesn't. It's not a hate crime to look like the subject. (Was Gary Oldman buried under a fat suit and prosthetics to play Winston Churchill in his Oscar-winning role in The Darkest Hours "fat-shaming"?)

While well-executed from performance to visuals to tone, Maestro feels more like a companion piece to a more factual documentary on Leonard Bernstein than a satisfying portrait of one of the 20th Century's leading classical lights.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.


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