'Maestro' hits some discordant notes : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Netflix film Maestro is an Old-Hollywood style biopic about the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper directed, co-wrote, and stars in the film as Bernstein. It examines Bernstein's life through the lens of his complicated marriage to his wife played by Carey Mulligan. And of course, there are many scenes in which we watch Cooper passionately conducting orchestras of both the work of classical composers as well as Bernstein's own music.
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'Maestro' hits some discordant notes

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The new film "Maestro" is an old Hollywood-style biopic about the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper stars as Bernstein. He also directed and co-wrote the film. And it's getting a big Oscars push, much like the first film Cooper directed, 2018's "A Star Is Born."

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

"Maestro" examines Bernstein's life through the lens of his complicated marriage to his wife. She's played by Carey Mulligan. The film also interrogates Bernstein's sexuality. He's depicted as a loving, if difficult husband, but we also see how his wife's knowledge of his affairs with men affect her and the relationship. I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're talking about Netflix's "Maestro" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Hey, it's Linda Holmes. 2023 has been quite a year for pop culture - "Barbie," "Oppenheimer," "Fast Car," "Succession," "Cocaine Bear." And we have loved talking about all of it here on the show. We're excited about everything we'll dig into in 2024, hopefully with your support. This is where we want to say a big thank you to our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR+ supporters and anyone listening who already donates to public media. And to anyone out there who isn't a supporter yet, right now is the time to get behind the NPR network, especially with our journalists gearing up for an important election year. Supporting public media now takes just a few minutes and makes a real difference in what's possible moving forward. Join NPR+ or make a tax-deductible donation now at donate.npr.org/happy. And thanks.

WELDON: Joining us today is NPR correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas. Hey, Anastasia.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey there, Glen.

WELDON: Welcome, welcome. So "Maestro" begins with an aging Leonard Bernstein being interviewed about his life. He's played by Bradley Cooper. We flash back to Bernstein as a young man - his first big break, his meeting and marrying his wife, Felicia, played by Carey Mulligan. These sequences take place in black and white. What follows is a whistle-stop tour through the major events in Bernstein's life and career, driven by scenes in which we watch him passionately conducting orchestras, both the work of classical composers, as well as his own music. These later sequences take place in color. "Maestro" is directed and co-written by Cooper. He co-wrote this film with Josh Singer, one of the screenwriters of "Spotlight," "The Post" and "First Man." It has already made many critics' top 10 films of 2023 lists, and it's streaming on Netflix. Anastasia, you have forgotten more about Leonard Bernstein than Aisha and I have ever known or will ever know combined.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: So this is entirely your wheelhouse. And I was watching this film. I was thinking, I want to hear from Anastasia. So hit me. What'd you think?

TSIOULCAS: I actually really liked it. You know, obviously, I have a big connection professionally to Bernstein's music. I have worked as a classical music critic and journalist for a long time now. I also have a little bit of a personal connection in that I didn't ever study with him. I never played under him. A fair number of my friends did, especially in his super louche later years.

(LAUGHTER)

TSIOULCAS: You know, classical music is a pretty small world, so it's not that many degrees of separation at all, ever, and especially when you have a towering figure like Bernstein. And I thought the film really did a lot to describe who he was and sort of this extraordinary world in which he lives and sort of the many musical universes he inhabited - Broadway and classical music and sort of the public facing stuff, you know, all the TV stuff and the stuff that's, like, super, super nerdy and insider. Later in the film, there's this magnificent sequence in which he's conducting Mahler's Second Symphony in a cathedral.

WELDON: Right.

TSIOULCAS: And it's one of the longest stretches of music I have seen on film in a very, very long time - sort of uninterrupted. And the camera sort of spins around Bernstein and makes him, as ever, the center of the universe. But I thought it demonstrates so much about why some people love this music so much. And I thought it was one of the most elegant and gracious sort of openings to this world that can feel very hermetically sealed off to outsiders, which I really, really appreciated. Is the film powerful? I don't know. A lot of the dialogue, like, the most bracing and corrosive bits of dialogue, are taken literally word for word out of Bernstein's daughter's biography of her father. The Snoopy float line - that came directly from Jamie's book.

But the amazing thing to me is that I thought it was a very calibrated look at him. I think it didn't apologize for the fact that he could be this narcissistic monster of a person. And I thought it did a very, very good job of not sort of deifying Bernstein, which - you know, in classical music, sort of the default stance is put icons on a pedestal. Don't talk about their personal failings or flaws or anything like that - being narcissistic, for example. I'm sure we'll get to this, but I thought this film was really about Felicia, his wife...

WELDON: Sure.

TSIOULCAS: ...In a lot of ways.

WELDON: Aisha, where'd you come down?

HARRIS: Well, in the words of a different musical genius, to paraphrase, at least - makeup, beautiful makeup.

WELDON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: For me, the best thing about this, aside from Carey Mulligan's performance, was the makeup. Kazu Hiro who has won an Oscar for doing "The Darkest Hour," which is a movie we - I know we - Glen, you and I, did not like.

WELDON: Yeah.

HARRIS: But, like, I was actually kind of by more so the aesthetics and the sort of cinematic choices that Cooper is making here because, you know, the makeup does look fantastic. I think it's probably some of the best old-age makeup I've ever seen. And, of course, there's also been some kerfuffle around his nose and the fact that he uses a prosthetic nose. When the first images came out, a lot of people were calling it an example of, quote-unquote, "Jew face," that it was antisemitic. You know, first of all, the nose does not really actually look that big. I think it actually fits his face the way the makeup happens. And also, his kids came out in defense of Bradley Cooper and said, you know, we actually think it looks great. And also, like, our father had a big, beautiful nose. Like, why not?

So - but I think for me, I found this - it left me mostly cold, in part because this movie is a movie that just feels like it has to show you how much of a movie it is. The dialogue is very classic Hollywood, Mid-Atlantic - we're going to talk like this, see? And I'm - and it felt very put upon, and there were moments where I thought he was clearly trying to be - he was trying to make this seem like his "All That Jazz." And "All That Jazz" is kind of a masterpiece, and also "All That Jazz" is a director and a creator sort of interrogating himself as opposed to, you know, Bradley Cooper, who's interrogating someone who is not at all him. But it did feel as though those were the aims he was making because that movie is, in part, about an artist's failures as a husband, as a partner. And this movie is doing that. And I don't think it does itself any favors to draw those comparisons because this is not "All That Jazz."

So, yeah, it left me a little cold, and I'm sure we'll get into it. But I think some of the things that it's trying to peel away at when it comes to, like, this idea of art and the artist and creator versus someone in the public eye and sort of that tension - it does a lot of talking about it, but I don't think it really actually interrogates it, like, on a, like, artistic level within the film itself.

WELDON: That's interesting. OK. You know, for a lot of reasons you bring up, I also had a tough time with this. And most of my issues came down to Cooper's performance. I mean, I kind of felt distracted through this entire movie, not engaged. And, again, we are in the clear minority, Aisha and I. I think most people are in Anastasia's corner, and many critics love it. It's the kind of thing the industry loves to pelt with Oscars.

HARRIS: Yes.

WELDON: And I think they will, come Oscar time. But this thing, to me, was all artifice, all surface, all Cooper's kind of try-hard affect. I mean, he's clearly done his research. I just don't think he let go of that research enough because he watched a lot of interviews with Bernstein. That's clear. And he's doing an accurate impersonation, but he seems not to have realized that the way people talk in interviews is a performance, right? So what we're getting here is a performance of a performance. And I know the conceit of the movie is that he's being interviewed, but I kept waiting for some of that diffidence, that archness, that very performative quality to drop away in the dramatized scenes. But there was no modulation at all.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: I just don't think he dug under it enough. It's kind of like he's wearing the skin of this character, not actually becoming him. And that's reflected in a lot of the choices the film makes, Aisha, as you mentioned. The choice to film those early scenes in black and white and have everyone talk like Nick and Nora Charles - that also felt false and distracting to me because it was an attempt to evoke the past, not by digging in and actually presenting the past, but by couching it in the familiar, by aping the signifiers of a cinematic, abstract past, not how people looked and talked and lived back then...

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: ...But how they looked and talked and lived in movies.

HARRIS: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: Bernstein and Felicia did have those crazy Mid-Atlantic accents. I don't think he actually caught Bernstein's pace or cadence speaking. I don't think he got the voice very well at all. It did feel very artificial and put on. On the other hand, like, I never sat in their kitchen, right? But they were very performative people, period.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

WELDON: No, I get that. I get that. It's just that - and this is a question I have for you both. I mean, like, having said all that stuff I said, a thing I still can't figure out is why, you know - Mulligan did everything Cooper did. I had a much easier time with her. I think she just felt less effortful and actorly than he did.

HARRIS: Look, I think part of that is just that, like, Carey Mulligan, I think, is a stronger actor, performer. But at the same time, with Bradley Cooper - and this kind of goes into sort of the issue that always arises with this kind of movie, is that we've now known Bradley Cooper. He's kind of on this evolution of his persona, right? Like, when most of us or a lot of us were first introduced to him was probably maybe "Hangover," which is, you know, the bro-iest (ph) of bro-y (ph) movies - certainly wasn't his first role. But, like, I think that's when he really stepped out and we knew his name. And since then, you know, he's had "A Star Is Born" and he has - as you said, Glen, he's kind of become this try-hard. And the try-hard persona does not wear well on artists. It can distract from the work they're doing.

I also think, like, he's basically this year's Will Smith when Will Smith was campaigning for "King Richard." Like, this is what's happening. Like, there's all this, like, showing the work and proving how much research went into it. Like, you can't pretend we don't know who Bradley Cooper is. He's never going to sort of disappear into that role, whereas Carey Mulligan - I don't know really anything about Carey Mulligan outside of the roles she's played. It's just hard to let go of, like, all of this. And also, Bradley Cooper is not just acting. He's also, again, directing. He's responsible for all of this. So for me, at least, that plays a part in it.

TSIOULCAS: I mean, I also think that sort of that mantle of, like, having to live up to a thing feels very weighty here and very - as you both have said, sort of, that certainly sort of seeps through everything, and especially with Cooper. And I also think a lot about the sort of background history of this. Like, at one point, Spielberg was going to direct it. At one point, Scorsese was going to direct it. And...

HARRIS: Yeah. Instead, they're both executive producers on this.

WELDON: Sure.

TSIOULCAS: I agree that Cooper has a very hard time sort of slipping out of what he knows and what he - and, I think, anticipates that some of the audience knows already - as you said, sort of embody Bernstein in his own way.

HARRIS: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: It's very effortful.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: No, no, that's it. And as you mentioned, Anastasia, that scene with Mahler in the cathedral, in interviews - as we mentioned, he did do a lot of interviews - Cooper has said that he knew this film has what he calls a nuclear power - Bernstein's music - just as "A Star Is Born" had a nuclear power in Gaga's voice. And it's not - I'm not saying he's using it as a crutch by any means, but he is - it's driving the film in a big way. So talk to me, Anastasia, about the use of music here.

TSIOULCAS: So that, I thought, was one of the real strengths of this movie is there was some very, very, very clever slipping in of various bits of Bernstein's own music, including some not very well-known stuff at all, used as a score, as well as sort of a character, so to speak. And I thought that was extremely well done. I mean, we hear bits from sort of the big numbers that everybody knows. There's - you hear a little bit of "West Side Story," you hear a little bit of "Wonderful Town." But there's also stuff you don't know - or lots of people don't know, like his piece "A Quiet Place" and some of the piano music and things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORIA RUGGIERO'S "A QUIET PLACE: POSTLUDE")

TSIOULCAS: I thought that was really clever and beautifully done. I know Cooper brought in - as sort of an adviser, he got close to members of the New York Philharmonic or staff of the New York Philharmonic. He leaned very heavily on the conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who actually conducts that cathedral scene for real. It's a beautiful way of introducing some really powerful music to a much wider audience, which I'm always going to be an evangelist for.

HARRIS: Yeah. I will say there was a really funny moment, I thought, where he uses a bit of music from "West Side Story," sort of a Jets and Sharks moment, when Felicia, like, sees one of Leonard's lovers and feels, like, threatened by it. Like, that punctuation was - I was like, oh, this is - I laughed out loud. I was like, this is actually kind of funny. I liked that little bit.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah.

WELDON: Yeah. Now, I should note that as part of this movie's Oscar push, they are sending out packets to critics, and my packet included the screenplay. And whenever I find myself this far out of step with critical consensus, I always want to check my work. So I sat down with the screenplay because I felt so sure that the script must be filled with those biopic moments I hate.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WELDON: But the screenplay is clean. It doesn't have any of that stuff that I could see. My issue is not the screenplay, it's the flourishes around the stiltedness of Cooper's performance, the phoniness of that black-and-white stuff, the fact that later in the film, Bernstein is driving up to a place in a convertible with the radio blasting and it just so happens to be blasting R.E.M.'s "End Of The World As We Know It" just as they get to the Leonard Bernstein.

HARRIS: Yes (laughter).

WELDON: That is not in the script, by the way. I went back and checked because, like, come on. That is a directorial choice that his music supervisor should have just talked him out of, just slapped his hand and said, nope, nope, not for you.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Slap it away.

TSIOULCAS: There's a series of choices going on here.

HARRIS: Yes, yeah.

TSIOULCAS: And some of them feel very awkward and some of them feel artificial. Many of them felt artificial, I have to say. The dance sequence in which Cooper takes a spin across the stage, I was like...

WELDON: Yeah.

HARRIS: That was the "All That Jazz" moment for me. I was like, what are we doing here?

WELDON: Yes, it was.

TSIOULCAS: And I thought, this is self-indulgence, and it's not a commentary on Bernstein's self-indulgence.

WELDON: Oh, wow. That's interesting.

HARRIS: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah.

WELDON: Yes, that's exactly it. That is what I'm trying to articulate.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WELDON: That's exactly what I'm trying to say here, yeah.

HARRIS: Wait. Can I ask another question? I guess we've talked about Felicia. But, like, what do you think of the way this relationship sort of unfolds? Because to me, I feel like we've seen this many times, where it's, like, the wife or the woman, the partner of the, you know, tortured male genius. And I wonder if you thought that it was trying to say anything new or different about this role or if it was trying to deconstruct it in any way.

WELDON: For me, what it was trying to do is give Carey Mulligan something to chew on, you know, something to really sink her teeth into.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: There's a moment where she's describing that you shouldn't feel sorry for her because she knew exactly what she was getting into. And she's staring down the barrel of the camera when she gives that little monologue.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Felicia) It's my own arrogance to think I could survive on what he could give. It's just so ironic. I would look at everyone, even my own children, with such pity because of their longing for his attention. It was sort of a banner I wore so proudly - I don't need, I don't need.

WELDON: It's - again, she's got the accent, she's got the mannerisms, but it doesn't feel mannered. It feels like someone speaking from the heart, which is kind of what I missed whenever Cooper was on screen. How about you, Anastasia?

TSIOULCAS: I felt like we were watching a portrait of a woman who said, I thought I understood the choices I was making. And sort of over the course of the movie, we see that unfold in a trajectory that maybe she didn't necessarily...

HARRIS: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: ...Fully understand what all the ramifications were going to be. I thought it was pretty powerful. And again, you know, there's so much hero worship around Bernstein. And Felicia is sort of a footnote at best.

HARRIS: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: I thought that just even surfacing her story, it was a pretty powerful thing.

WELDON: Yeah. What I was worried about is this would be, you know, this is a great man and all the people whose lives he destroyed around him. It's not quite that, but it's not quite warts and all either. It is more nuanced than perhaps I gave it credit for being at the top. I mean, I think, honestly, you have a point where if you want to see him through his sexuality, that's one kind of film. And I don't think that's this - the film that this wants to be. This is if you see him through his music, right?

TSIOULCAS: That's so hard to answer. I don't know if - and again, I can't jump into his mind, but there are certainly people in that world who I think are hyperaware of their power and hyperaware of their influence. And I think the sense I've always gotten is that he thought of himself as a musician among other musicians. And I don't know if he really wielded that, you know, sort of in manipulative ways, and certainly that's not something this film goes to. But again, you know, maybe people who knew him would have a very different perspective on that. But that's not the sense that I have.

HARRIS: Yeah. This isn't "Tar," you know? This isn't a movie that's interested in necessarily his power in a way, or at least his power in that way. It's him sort of recognizing he has this power, but also not really being fully aware that, like - how it affects his wife and how it affects his wife being in the shadow. Like, there's a literal scene where she is in his shadow dramatically while he's performing onstage. Again, this is this movie - nothing is subtle. And that aspect of his sexuality kind of feels like it's just kind of sprinkled as opposed to really fully probed.

TSIOULCAS: I appreciate the fact that this wasn't a film saying, he was such a great artist, it doesn't matter how he treated people.

WELDON: Right. Exactly. This conversation was a lot more interesting than the conversation I thought we were going to have because...

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...Y'all have pulled things out of this movie that I didn't get, and that's on me. But I'm so glad we had this conversation. So we want to know what you think about "Maestro." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Anastasia Tsioulcas, Aisha Harris, thank you so much for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.

WELDON: This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Audio engineering was performed by Neal Rauch and Patrick Murray. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon and we'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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