Over the past few decades the entire-career biopic has gone out of fashion. We now favour a focus on one incident that acts as synecdoche for the whole life. A week after Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, with largely satisfactory results, said to hell with that, Bradley Cooper takes Leonard Bernstein all the way from big break to rages against the dying light. He could have dealt with the premiere of West Side Story. He could have treated Bernstein’s divisive Mass. Maybe his engagement with the Black Panthers. As it happens, those highlights are glanced over – indeed the “radical chic” is largely ignored – as the film turns itself in upon the musician’s singular marriage to Felicia Montealegre.
The approach has its triumphs. Wrapping an austere dignity about her frozen shoulders, Carey Mulligan calmly steals the film from under the director’s controversially ersatz nose. Honoured as lead on some posters, she allows Montealegre, an actor of Costa Rican descent, to kick back against all the underwritten wives who have whined at “great men” in 100 boilerplate movies. She has a deal to put up with. Throughout their marriage, Bernstein had liaisons with men, sometimes discreetly, sometimes less so. Their relationship is what might then have been seen as “sophisticated”. Just the sort of thing detractors expected New York intellectuals to get up to.
The tensions eventually come to a head with a tense argument – carried out while balloons from the Thanksgiving parade bob by the window – that allows Mulligan, in a long speech, to demonstrate ironic sting worthy of a Harold Pinter heroine. Even without the affairs, there were, to quote Princess Diana, three of them in this marriage: the couple and Bernstein’s ego. Cooper does not play him as any sort of divine monster, but we understand how difficult it is to be so adored by others and not end up adoring oneself.
That performance, sadly, never escapes the weight of impersonation. There is the much-discussed nose – iffy when making up someone of Irish and Italian descent as a Jewish character. There are more layers of prosthetics as the great man ages. But the real barrier is the vocal hullabaloo. Speaking from somewhere just north of his adenoids, Cooper strives so hard for the Bernstein voice that he scarcely allows room for acting. To what end? Bernstein wasn’t Winston Churchill or Jimmy Cagney. Many of his most ardent fans would not recognise his speaking voice.
The film has an abundance of style. It is a tribute to Bernstein. It is a tribute to Montealegre. But it is mostly a tribute to the United States, particularly New York, at the height of its postwar pomp. Cooper, who did such fine work on A Star Is Born, shifts from monochrome to colour and utilises different aspect ratios as the film moves from the crisp-suited 1950s to the phased 1960s to the blaring 1970s. You could be “the first great American conductor”, someone says to him. If it was ever going to happen it was going to happen then.
What is most conspicuously absence is a hint, in even the vaguest technical terms, of what made Bernstein such an admired conductor and composer. It is not enough to have people tell us (and him) he’s a genius. The film does, however, give us a dramatic tribute to the passion he put into his work. Cooper has revealed he spent six years learning to conduct for the scene in which our flawed genius performs Mahler’s Second Symphony in Ely Cathedral. He ended up with a sweaty, heaving, eye-popping, teeth-grinding hunk of thespian toil that will bludgeon even the most resistant into compliance. Only Cooper can say if it was worth the hours.
Maestro opens in cinemas on Friday, December 1st, and streams on Netflix from Wednesday, December 20th