During a series of 1973 Harvard University lectures known as The Unanswered Question, American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein looks to offer an acceptable hypothesis for answering a question mused by fellow composer Charles Ives: “whither music?” Throughout the hours-long lectures, Bernstein takes the faculty students on a trip down music history. Among the subjects covered, Bernstein takes a relatively short 6 minutes to explain the relationships between the 12 tones that are the foundation of Western music. In this relationship, known as the circle of fifths, the tonic seeks its dominant, who in turn seeks the next tonic, and so forth. The circular relationship takes on many forms, forever looking to establish perfect harmony.
Not unlike the circle of fifths, the semantics surrounding the relationship between Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and his actress wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) is fraught with various permutations and is no less complex. Perfect harmony is far from the reality here. The classic boy meets girl love story being doomed to fail from the onset. However, through various trials and tribulations spanning over thirty years, the couple continuously seek each other out. Sexuality and genius are the main elements that threaten to destroy their relationship. Yet, in the Bernstein/Montealegre union, tenderness and respect prevail over a lack of passion.
Hopes and aspirations are answered when a call to substitute a sick conductor is received. Cooper, in his sophomoric directorial effort, demonstrates his mastery from the very beginning. Maestro opens in a bedroom with the curtains closed. The imagery evokes an artist about to take the stage when the curtain rises. Excitedly, Bernstein gives a few congratulatory slaps to his bedside partner on the rear end. Mere moments in and Cooper has already laid the films foundation. After his triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, the music world thrusts Bernstein into the spotlight. Throughout his career, he would take advantage of the cresting wave of broadcast technology.
The same methods of exposure would also risk being detrimental to his career and life; a Jewish and gay American conductor had no place on the classical music stage at the time. Even when the direction flirts with becoming overly melodramatic, Cooper pulls the reins in and plays his subject void of any sentimentality. He takes extra care to not portray Bernstein as a hero or a martyr. Cooper has nailed the mannerisms and speech patterns and spectacularly inhabits the famed conductor’s skin with help from his makeup crew (controversies aside). It is Cooper’s best performance to date.
Whether because of career or personal necessity, many in Bernstein’s circle would opt to form a family with members of the opposite sex. For Bernstein, however, Felicia would prove more than a “beard.” From understudy to lead at her husband’s suggestion, to a heartbreaking culmination of the duo’s relationship, Felicia is Bernstein’s tonic root. In the role, Mulligan has never been better. She exudes a subdued yet powerful presence tinged with terminal sadness. In her closing scenes, she is heartbreakingly mesmerizing.
Cooper presents an exhilarating beginning to the relationship. The director’s control and assuredness are outstanding. The characters prance from scene to scene as in a dream scape where an artist’s utopia is on full display. Cooper expertly hashes out the coming conflict between lovers using a musical number from Bernstein’s On the Town. The bulk of the soundtrack is comprised of Bernstein’s works. The first half of Maestro flirts with perfect execution. The palpable joie de vivre resonates with great effectiveness. However, an underlying sadness hums almost inaudibly in the ears of excitement.
Changes in epoch are denoted by added color to the black-and-white beginnings and a change in the aspect ratio. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique is gentle with this transition. The gray areas, not only love but genius, require further examination. The view is no longer narrow. The ever-expanding Bernstein persona must confront ugly realities that take more than an emotional toll on all involved. Cooper transposes the early dreamscape into a grounded reality that exponentially exudes tragedy. A bombastic scene where Felicia airs out heavy grievances resets their relationship down its inevitable course.
A seemingly irreparable relationship becomes mended with threads of overwhelming distress. In sadness lies triumph. Before Cooper traverses this path, he reenacts Bernstein’s famous conducting of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in England. It is a cathartic experience to witness at the hands of Cooper as it must have been back when it was performed at the famed cathedral in 1976. Choosing this moment, over many others of Bernstein’s career as a focal point, goes beyond its aesthetic beauty. After all, the symphony is colloquially known as the “Resurrection” Symphony. Arriving in the form of resurrection is a triumph. But, of course, resurrection cannot be possible without death.
The relationship between Bernstein and Montealegre was an imperfect harmony, but their respect and need of one another exceeded any dissonances. Questions arise when exploring a deeply personal and complicated relationship. Oftentimes, these are best left unanswered, whither music or whither love or whither anything else that forms part of ones being. In the exploration of a profoundly complex love story, Cooper has directed a modern masterpiece, with every decision carefully thought out and crafted. Cooper, not unlike a conductor, analyzes every bar of a musical piece in preparation of execution. When Maestro takes its curtain call, audiences will have witnessed more than one maestro at work.