‘Maestro’ Leaves Out the Very Best of Leonard Bernstein

Oscar-nominated film brushes past icon's most important achievements

One of the biggest problems with “Maestro” is that it isn’t political enough.

In trying to dramatize the life of Leonard Bernstein, director/star Bradley Cooper has been not so much dishonest as semi-honest; we get only a sliver of the many facets of one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

Bernstein the Private Man is the focus here.

We get some but not enough of Bernstein the Conductor and Bernstein the Mentor. The near-total absence of Bernstein the Composer is simply inexcusable.

Maestro | Official Trailer | Netflix

The movie expects modern viewers to be familiar with a man who has been dead for more than 30 years and whose dominating cultural presence stretched from the late 1940s to the late 1980s.

That’s a great disservice to both the film’s subject and its audience.

Anyone familiar with Bernstein will walk always frustrated that the man’s tremendous artistic contributions are left almost untouched. Those unfamiliar with him will wonder why this person deserved a big-budget biopic in the first place.

Who is this Bernstein we see on the screen? Certainly not the man who bridged high culture and pop culture more successfully than any other American before or since.

The tunesmith who helped write the immortal songs for “On the Town” and “West Side Story” and who also penned an operetta based on Voltaire’s “Candide” and a symphony based on Plato’s Symposium is barely present.

We also don’t get the man who helped revive the reputation of Gustav Mahler; although we see Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, it takes place late in the film, in 1973, a full decade after his more important performance of the same symphony in tribute to the recently-murdered John F. Kennedy.

Bernstein: Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK | National Symphony Orchestra

Completely absent is the man who composed the extraordinary and influential film score for “On the Waterfront,” who popularized classical music to the masses with his TV specials and who helped mentor everyone from Stephen Sondheim to Yo-Yo Ma.

We do at least get the director of the New York Philharmonic, but not enough of him at work in this role, or in his larger role in disseminating classical music to the general public. It’s not insignificant that the film’s centerpiece – the aforementioned Mahler symphony – takes place not in New York, but in London.

But we at least get the Political Bernstein, don’t we? There’s no way Hollywood would overlook this dimension of his historical character, right?

Strangely enough, the answer is no once again.

We don’t get the lifelong liberal activist, who spoke out against HUAC and Vietnam at a time when it threatened his public standing (Cancel Culture remains toxic no matter who is doing it or why), campaigned to free imprisoned artists in the Soviet Union while supporting the civil rights movement at home and less admirably hobnobbed with the Black Panthers and other members of the far Left.

The latter inspired Tom Wolfe to coin the term “Radical Chic.”

You’d think this alone would be enough to make him a hero in the eyes of contemporary tastemakers, but no, none of his political activity comes up either.

So what is left to film? The emphasis is instead overwhelmingly on his marriage to his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan) and his children, and his maintaining a double life through numerous affairs with other men. Bernstein also embarked on numerous heterosexual affairs as well, but mentioning those would presumably make him look bad.

By focusing on Bernstein’s family and clandestine romances, the film fails to address the most interesting of all his relationships, the one he had with the United States itself.

Maestro | Ely Cathedral | Official Clip | Netflix

Cooper’s performance as Bernstein doesn’t help.

So far, he’s been at his best in seriocomic leads (“Silver Linings Playbook”) or ensemble comedies (“The Hangover”), but has yet to give a satisfactory performance as a dramatic lead.

In straight dramas, Cooper has an annoying habit of developing a set of limited mannerisms as the basis for his performance and then refusing to develop this superficial characterization.

He previously did so in “A Star is Born” and “Nightmare Alley,” and does so here again. Yes, the makeup job on him is amazing, but it conceals a shallow portrayal that only occasionally conveys the inner turmoil that the real man must have gone through.

There are times, especially late in the film when he tries to affect a gruffness in his voice to denote the aged Bernstein, where Cooper seems to be parodying Alec Guinness’s performance in “The Horse’s Mouth.” The latter is a far more successful portrayal of artistic genius struggling with the pains and pressures of mid-century life (in both senses of the word).

Cooper does demonstrate that, like Robert Redford and George Clooney, he’s possibly a better director than he is an actor. Although the script is as perfunctory as one of Ken Russell’s musical biopics of the Seventies, the film manages to be almost as visually striking, if obviously far less flamboyant and overblown.

Maybe Cooper should have concentrated on his directorial task and passed the acting baton to someone who might have done a better job at creating a fully-realized and believable Bernstein.

The fine work by Mulligan and most of the rest of the supporting cast (even Sarah Silverman manages to stay on the right side of annoying) indicates that Cooper is better at getting good performances out of other actors than he is at getting one out of himself.

Archie - Official Trailer (2023)

The release of “Maestro” coincided with that of “Archie,” the highly-acclaimed TV miniseries about the life and times of Cary Grant. Perhaps that’s also the route that the makers of “Maestro” should have taken.

Sharing Bernstein’s staggering life over six or seven hour-long episodes might have given them the chance to orchestrate every dimension of a complicated career and personality.

A few pages of his life in a little over two hours feels like an unfinished symphony.

A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.


  1. Possible alternate title for the movie, “Lennie, Composer? Nah, Conductor? Nah, Activist? Nah, philandering sodomite? Yah, baby!”.

  2. Disclosure: I am a HUGE classical music snob and was already very familiar with Bernstein the man, composer and conductor prior to seeing the movie. Going in with no expectations, I came away disappointed and not liking Bernstein the man very much. Perhaps (likely) unintentionally, Cooper paints Bernstein’s homosexuality in a negative light by showing the aftermath of what it did to his family.

    Over the years, I find myself falling out of love with Bernstein’s compositions apart from West Side Story, On the Waterfront and Chichester Psalms. In terms of Bernstein the conductor, a recent review of my vast collection finds only a handful of recordings lead by him. There used to be more, but those recordings have been supplanted by European conductors as well as other American conductors of the Golden Age of classical recordings. Think Szell, Ormandy, Slatkin.

    Some of my classical snob friends discussed the film, and we all agree with this reqiew that so much that matters was left out and too much time was spent on things that don’t.

    1. Most of my friends who are also classical music aficionados or work in the performing arts have also shared your disappointment with Bernstein’s depiction. I haven’t heard other complaints about unintentional homophobia but no doubt there are other viewers who share these concerns as well.

  3. i think Marstro was a masterpiece. Bradley cooper did a wonderful job. As well as carey mulligan. I think the movie was fabulous . He conducted the orchestra so wonderfully. His portrayal was excellent. I hope he gets at least a few awards for his dedication to this unbelievable unforgettable tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

    1. Thank you for your alternate perspective! I concede there are many good things about it, Mulligan especially. You genuinely believe she loves this man in spite of all his flaws. And as I mentioned above, Cooper does a good job at directing; it’s a considerable improvement over his more conventional work on A Star Is Born. However, the script let me down, and that’s the source of most of my disappointment.

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