Bradley Cooper pretending he can conduct in the movie 'Maestro'

My Least Favorite Part of ‘Maestro’ Is the Bradley Cooper of It All

Maestro brings to life the story of Leonard Bernstein—or at least, it is supposed to. What we got was, instead, Bradley Cooper’s attempt at an Academy Award for himself, and it comes across as a disingenuous attempt at depicting the real-life impact of Lenny Bernstein in the process.

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Cooper plays Bernstein in the midst of writing and directing and producing the film, and having his hands in all those cookie jars has made Maestro feel like Cooper was trying his damndest to just get the Oscar through whatever means necessary—erasing a lot of Bernstein’s legacy to do it. What I truly loathed about Maestro came from how Cooper used the men in Bernstein’s life as pawns to push Lenny’s sexuality as angst in the film, put Felicia Montealegre Bernstein (Carey Mulligan) in almost a bigger role than Lenny at times (which would be fine if it weren’t a movie about Lenny), and almost completely erased Lenny’s contribution to musical theatre for whatever ideas Cooper seemed to have about it.

While I think that maybe Cooper was trying to honor Bernstein’s own issues with musical theatre, there were so many ways we could have seen Bernstein’s struggles with his career, his legacy, his sexuality, his Jewish identity, and his place in history without this being a movie that lacked a storyline and without erasing the gay men who helped Lenny Bernstein along the way, which Maestro does.

My biggest issue outside of Cooper’s portrayal, which just feels like a caricature of Lenny Bernstein more than anything else, is that his writing of Bernstein focuses nearly entirely on his work as a conductor and almost completely erases his work as a composer for the most part, ignoring what he did for theatre and music as a whole to instead highlight his relationship with Felicia and how he would eventually cheat on her in his own sexual exploration.

A visually stunning movie that could have been a lot more

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

Do not get me wrong in thinking that I stewed throughout all of Maestro and hated every frame. In reality, I loved looking at the movie. I think Cooper is a visually stunning director. What I don’t necessarily think he has quite figured out is how to delegate. There is not a reason that he needed to play Bernstein in this. Quite frankly, I don’t think he needed to write on this at all. He co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer on top of directing and starring after Steven Spielberg left, but it is famously a story that many wanted to tell, including Jake Gyllenhaal.

If Cooper wanted to be involved this badly, I really wish he had just directed it. Maybe he would have taken the Best Director nom and win (even though I want that to go to Christopher Nolan for Oppenheimer), but instead, we got a visually beautiful and technically wonderful movie that is hard to watch because of what Cooper is doing with Lenny.

Why show him composing his most famous work?

For whatever reason, a film entitled Maestro focused a lot on Bernstein’s relationship with his wife, and that’s the story Cooper wanted to tell. What he barely wanted to tell was the story Berstein’s work as a whole. We get one sequence where musical theatre is at the forefront and it is because someone mocks Lenny about his love of it (which is really never brought up again) and Felicia kind of asks to see what he’s working on. We see a stylized take on Bernstein’s work, highlighting On the Town, and if Cooper had maintained this kind of look into Bernstein’s work throughout the film? That would have been gorgeous.

Instead, it is almost as if Cooper says, “You got your musical theatre. Now watch me conduct.” You can say, “But they brought up Jerome Robins” or “Felicia says ‘Stevie Sondheim'” and okay! I’m so glad that Cooper, in his infinite wisdom on this man, thought to give the work of West Side Story just one line or two. Because how could Cooper get an Oscar when he only conducted a couple of scenes?! Look, I just simply think that Maestro, as a movie, for all Cooper’s talk of making this not a straightforward biopic, needed more structure.

Because what we ended up getting was a movie that has disjointed moments of Bernstein’s career that don’t hold emotional weight if you don’t know what they mean. We didn’t get to explore the tension during West Side Story between Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim because Cooper just didn’t see the merit it in when there are letters detailing his frustrations.

All of this could have been included in the movie, but it was left out to focus on whatever it is that Cooper wanted to highlight. So much of this film comes across as Bradley Cooper attempting to win an Oscar and not at all honoring anything that Lenny Bernstein did with his career or work.

(featured image: Jason McDonald/Netflix)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.