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Film Review: Maestro

FILM REVIEW 
MAESTRO
Rated R
129 Minutes
Limited Release November 22nd now at Laemmle Monica Center, Netflix Release December 20th

The making of this movie is a story of extreme persistence, perseverance, and passion. This is a poetic study of Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper so clearly understands the soul of Bernstein, the man, and his music that the film plays as if Cooper himself is conducting a piece of music. And, incidentally, he does just that. Cooper spent six years with the London Symphony Orchestra learning to conduct in the style of Leonard Bernstein so that he could ace a key 6-minute scene at the beginning of the film. 

The movie itself took 15 years to be made. Cooper never gave up. This is not really a biopic; it’s an ode to love on many levels: Cooper’s love of Bernstein and his music, Bernstein’s love of music and his wife, Chilean actress Felicia Montealgre, played so superbly by Carey Mulligan, and Bernstein’s love of many men. The project was originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg in 2008, with Cooper attached, but when Spielberg saw Cooper’s talent and will to master directing in an early cut of Cooper’s A Star Is Born, he told him, “You’re directing this F**ng movie.” 

Making me believe, as I did, that I was watching Bernstein himself in this movie was quite a feat because I grew up watching Bernstein from early childhood. He was a larger-than-life figure to me. I watched him on TV, listened to his conducting on my parents’ albums, and stood on my bed with a stick in my hand pretending to conduct music like him. It was hard to fool me into thinking I was watching the real icon, but with Cooper’s extraordinary direction and acting and makeup artist Kazu Hiro’s phenomenal work, that’s exactly what happened.

A renowned cinematic makeup artist, Hiro took on the painstaking job of making Cooper into Bernstein with the advanced makeup tools available today. He worked for three years with Cooper to craft the prosthetics for the actor not to just appear as Bernstein but to become him throughout a 50-year span. He did the same with Mulligan. He used new techniques in 3D printing to “copy” the actor and the character and make them one. 

Hiro notes, “It’s the actor underneath you have to work with, so I can’t simply make the likeness of Lenny on Bradley because I have to understand how he acts with it…” The painstaking application of the makeup took two to five hours, depending on Bernstein’s age in each scene. In the later weeks of filming, the call time for makeup was 1:00 a.m. to be on set by 7:00 a.m. (Perseverance!) Bernstein’s “kids” were involved throughout and provided photos. When Hiro had Bradley Facetime them in makeup, Alexander Bernstein “burst into tears.”

Cooper is a skilled and intuitive director. Cinematographer Matthew Labatique, who worked with Cooper on A Star is Born, says Cooper “edits in his head,” probably due to the hours he has spent in editing rooms with great filmmakers studying their craft. The movie flows as if he himself is conducting a piece of music; he knows the story from the inside out, and it’s pouring out of him in waves. No moment is dwelt on too long. Transitions from black & white to color are perfectly fused, so the shift disappears. Scenes are like musical notes hinting of emotion and currents of change. I’ve never understood a person so clearly from a biography on film. 

I have thought, while listening to the orchestral version of West Side Story, that people living in the 1800s would have loved Bernstein’s music as much as today’s audiences.  Bernstein was an artist of our time, but he was also an artist of all time. See this work by another great artist of our time, Bradley Cooper.

It would be a shame to only see this work of art on a TV screen, even if you have a “ginormous” one. If you can see Maestro at a theatre, please do. This film deserves the big screen.
Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which has been the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people.  She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com

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