Producers: Martin Scorsese, Bradley Cooper, Steven Spielberg, Fred Berner, Amy Durning and Kristie Macosko Krieger   Director: Bradley Cooper   Screenplay: Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer   Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Josh Hamilton, Gideon Glick, Sam Nivola, Alexa Swinton, Miriam Shor, Michael Urie, Nick Blaemire, Mallory Portnoy and Yasen Peyankov  Distributor: Netflix

Grade: B+

Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein is portrayed as a virtual force of nature in “Maestro,” and Bradley Cooper’s film aims to be one as well—for better and worse.  After a brief late-in-life prologue, it hurtles along from 1943, when his call at age twenty-five to substitute for an ailing Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic suddenly thrust him from obscurity to fame, to his final years of eminence on the international music scene.  Cooper’s hyper-energy in the title role is emphasized by the florid nature of his own direction, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Michelle Tesoro’s editing, with shifts from color to black-and-white and from boxy format to wide screen, glossy camerawork and hectic cutting only a few of the elements of the technical arsenal that the makers deploy in crafting a frequently frantic but sometimes solemn mosaic made up of bits and pieces of his life.

There are moments that feature excerpts from Bernstein’s own music—“Candide,” “Mass,” “A Quiet Place”—and examples of his idiosyncratic conducting style (the most extended being his leading the Mahler Second at Ely Cathedral in 1973, a video of which allowed Cooper to mimic his ecstatic gestures).  But the most significant, because it encapsulates the film’s central theme—is from his youthful ballet “Fancy Free,” written for Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie).

It comes fairly early in the picture, just after Bernstein has met Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a Chilean actress recently arrived in the United States, at a swank party where folks like his collaborators Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) and Adolf Green (Nick Blaemire) are rocking the house.  They talk and then flee to be alone, and he takes her to a rehearsal of the ballet, where one of the male dancers invites him into the piece and she joins the ensemble as well.  It’s pure imagination, of course, but it reflects the relationship Lenny and Felicia will have after they marry—a roundelay in which he’ll change partners on a dime and she’ll be forced to look on more often than not when he does so.

Bernstein’s bisexuality, and his attraction to male lovers, are portrayed both before his marriage—when the call comes to substitute for Walter he’s in bed with clarinetist (and later music executive) David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), and during a low point during his years with Felicia he becomes ostentatiously involved with Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick).  And his relationship with composer Aaron Copland (Brian Klugman) was very close, even if platonic.

And yet the marriage to Felicia was not a mere show—a tactic Bernstein used to hide his inclinations at a time when homosexuality was still looked upon as deviancy.  It’s true that his patron Serge Koussevitsky (Yasen Peyankov) is shown advising him to be cautious if he wants to become the star he’d like to be (he also suggests that Bernstein change his name to Burns, for the obvious reason).  But it’s made clear in the treatment Cooper’s penned with Josh Singer that Lenny and Felicia genuinely loved one another.  They had three children together—Jamie (Maya Hawke), Alexander (Sam Nivola) and Nina (Alexa Swinton)—to whom they were devoted, and when Felicia fell ill with cancer, Bernstein was by her side devotedly and was inconsolable after she died, as that prologue makes clear.

And yet the union was a turbulent one.  Though Lenny’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman), who was present from their first meeting, warned her of his penchant for blithely giving in to his attractions, Felicia, it’s made clear, was not at all comfortable with her husband’s dalliances, and excoriated him when they become flagrant, most notably in a sequence set at their New York apartment as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade rolls by, with the Snoopy balloon prominently displayed (a nifty visual bit of business, courtesy, one presumes, of visual effects supervisor John Bair).  She also demanded that he lie to Jamie when their daughter had heard rumors about his extramarital activities, even as she continued to be, in public, a dutiful wife and companion.

Cooper and Mulligan capture the essence of this complex union with approaches to their roles that are very different but complementary.  His performance is showy, both in the extrovert moments and the contemplative ones in which, among other things, he mourns that his conducting and dabbling in “popular” music didn’t allow him to do as much “serious” composing as he longed to do.  (Perhaps that explains why the recordings of “Candide” and “West Side Story” he made late in his career were so weighty—he was trying to turn them into quasi-operas.)  But that’s entirely appropriate: showmanship was central to Bernstein, in both his professional and personal lives.  (The brouhaha over the prosthetic nose is nonsense: it’s right in terms of physical appearance, and unless one wants to concentrate on it for some argumentative purpose, you forget it after a few minutes.) 

Mulligan, by contrast, is outwardly more restrained, but in terms of expressing Felicia’s underlying emotions, she’s remarkable; and when she explodes, she does so with impressive fury.  The sequences of her illness, moreover, are wrenchingly subdued—you can’t keep your eyes off her even as Cooper’s Bernstein suffers extravagantly, cigarette always in hand and the smoke billowing around him. 

The supporting cast contribute sharply etched portraits of people who moved in the couple’s tumultuous orbit.  Bomer is especially effective as one of many whom Lenny tossed aside with what seems careless nonchalance, yet who, even when pained, remained loyal out of respect for his artistic incandescence.  But the rest make their marks in smaller roles.  So too do production designer Kevin Thompson and costumer Mark Bridges, who meet the challenge of capturing the changing fashions that spanned the decades of the later twentieth century.

The scattershot feel of “Maestro” may disappoint those looking for a more cohesive biography of Bernstein, and in fact its fractured form and breathless pacing can leave even the most attentive viewer appreciative but exhausted.  But it succeeds in conveying the outsized personality of a man whose unbounded whose love of—or perhaps better, voracious appetite for—music, human contact and celebrity made him a figure of enormous accomplishment nonetheless filled with regret over never having accomplished enough.