Maestro review: Bradley Cooper outshone by Carey Mulligan in Leonard Bernstein biopic

Netflix film is one of the most-touted Oscar hopefuls of the year

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Netflix
Powered by automated translation

Much like Leonardo DiCaprio before him, plenty is made of the fact that Bradley Cooper is yet to win an Academy Award. This makes sense, as Cooper has been nominated for nine Oscars, including four times as an actor.

Cooper’s last acting nomination was for A Star Is Born, a film that also established him as one of America’s most exciting new filmmakers as he co-wrote, produced, and directed it, too. Maestro is Cooper’s follow-up to A Star Is Born, and the biopic of legendary composer Leonard Bernstein has all the hallmarks of an awards season contender.

Rather than being purely about Bernstein, Maestro revolves around his complicated marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), who he first met in 1946 and went on to be married to until 1978. Throughout their marriage, Bernstein had numerous affairs.

While Montealegre insists that she is able to handle these dalliances, they ultimately start to take an emotional and mental toil on her, as well as on their three children. All the while, Montealegre continues to play an integral role in Bernstein’s flourishing career, as he goes on to become one of the most important conductors of his time.

There are inspired moments dotted throughout Maestro. Cooper once again proves that he is a supremely gifted director with an innate understanding of where to place the camera and when to move it. He knows how to create striking images that encapsulate the drama, as well as how to use seemingly mundane everyday items to heighten it, too.


Director: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Maya Hawke

Rating: 3/5

There’s a flair and ambition to Maestro’s sequences that suggest there’s plenty more for him to showcase in what will hopefully be a long and fruitful directorial career. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique also deserves huge credit for the style and beauty that’s apparent all the way through Maestro. While you’re always aware of just how gorgeous the film’s visuals are, what’s more important is that they help to pull you deeper into the story.

Unsurprisingly, Cooper gives himself and his fellow actors plenty of room to showcase their talents. But while Cooper is impressive as the deeply-flawed yet undeniably gifted and inspiring Bernstein, it’s Mulligan who really shines. Thanks to her vulnerable yet tough portrayal, Montealegre becomes the beating heart of Maestro. The longer it goes on, you can’t help but feel sorry for and also be impressed by her sacrifices. More impressive than that, even though Cooper’s Bernstein is the more flamboyant and dynamic character, Maestro only really comes to life when she is on screen.

But while there’s plenty to admire about Maestro, it never quite manages to dig deep enough into their lives to feel complete. The film repeatedly raises a number of interesting themes and quandaries to explore. These include the battle between luck and destiny, various religious and gender dynamics, Bernstein’s struggles with substance abuse and infidelity, the nature of inspiration, as well as what friends and family sacrifice by being in the orbit of a genius. But it just flirts with them, rather than revealing anything thought provoking or profound for the viewer to consider deeply about these topics.

This was seemingly Cooper and his co-writer Josh Singer’s intention. Maestro opens with a quote from Bernstein that reads, "A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." But that doesn’t stop the feeling that Maestro never quite reaches its potential, even though there’s still so much to admire about it.

While it’s unlikely that Maestro will end Cooper’s Oscar drought, Mulligan is undoubtedly now a front-runner in the Best Actress category. Given how smooth and stunning Cooper’s direction is, though, it’s just as likely that, if he does win an Academy Award one day, it’ll be for his work behind the camera, rather than in front of it.

Who was Leonard Bernstein?

While Bernstein's film does cover the major artistic and cultural achievements of the composer's life, the film acts as an introduction to the towering 20th-century musical figure for many, though one focuses more on his personal life than the actual art he produced.

In his field, however, Bernstein was a genuine trailblazer, the first American-born conductor to achieve acclaim internationally, and the first to lead a top American symphony orchestra – the New York Philharmonic.

Part of the reason for his fame was his contributions to the world of musical theatre and film. His score for the 1957 musical West Side Story was adapted into films in 1961 and 2021, the latter by Steven Spielberg, and is widely regarded as his masterpiece. He also wrote the score for the Elia Kazan classic On the Waterfront in 1954, the film in which Marlon Brando uttered the eminently quotable line: "I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody."

His honours and accolades are too many to list, but his 16 Grammys, seven Emmys, two Tonys and one Oscar nomination indicate how broad his contribution was to modern pop culture.

Before he died in 1990 aged 72, he built a reputation as a fervent supporter of civil rights, protesting for numerous human rights and world peace causes over his decades as a public figure.

Maestro is now available to watch on Netflix

Updated: December 21, 2023, 6:31 AM

Director: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Maya Hawke

Rating: 3/5