Paul Joyce, a filmmaker, photographer and artist, and The Arb’s very own arts & media correspondent, lets loose on Bradley Cooper’s Maestro

In my decidedly less than humble opinion, the only real reason for Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s inconsequential biopic, getting close to an awards envelope, is the astonishing power and charisma of his subject’s ability to haunt us from his grave – Leonard “Lenny” Bernstein. Here the quote that immediately comes to mind ends with “…all sound and fury, signifying nothing.” However, I would certainly not go so far as to claim his film, Maestro, is told to us, in the words of William Shakespeare, by an idiot, for Cooper is an accomplished actor and at his best a competent director; it’s rather than in taking on both jobs he has diluted his talents so severely as to render the whole enterprise little more than a miserable pastiche.

Why am I being so harsh on a film which has some considerable highs alongside the overwhelming lows, including the presence of the magical Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s all-forgiving wife and some, but by no means all, of Bernstein’s music of genius? Because a) he skirts the core cause and effect of Bernstein’s bisexuality, b) he fails to deal adequately with his Jewishness, and c) the best of his wonderful music becomes in Cooper’s hands a failed attempt to create a pied-piper like celebration of his unique scores, ending instead as a merely meandering and eminently forgettable soundtrack to a barely sketched-in life.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

It is not a widely known fact that Steven Spielberg was slated to direct the movie, which would have surely involved his experienced hand in the screenplay as well, but he withdrew from the project, I suspect due to the universal chorus of disapproval for his attempt at a musical with West Side Story; this thankfully seems to have slipped into the equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes’ infamous tables, or perhaps is already there, as in a real list of worst movies of all time. However, I have no doubt that Spielberg’s involvement would have yielded a far more truthful and controversial film than the one that has finally appeared on our screens. Bradley Cooper is the latest in a long line of actors turned director, the usual advice for which is to let well alone, viz Angelina Jolie, Barbara Streisand and Warren Beatty to name only a few from a capacious and now overflowing pocketful of others.

Before I proceed to the very blood and guts out of this near farrago, I should say, however, it is plain as a pikestaff that Cooper surely has his heart on his sleeve for our Lenny, but unfortunately to the point that his worst characteristics are glossed over or ignored altogether. For me, I sensed deep problems as soon as it was clear that Cooper’s putty-enhanced nose (four hours in make-up alone!) was attracting all the pre-release publicity. When the nose carries the performance before it, like a ship’s figurehead, we know that trouble will follow. Just ask those nose kings, Orson Welles, and Larry Olivier. Jeanne Moreau who starred with Welles in Chimes at Midnight said that Welles claimed he had lost his make-up case and was therefore unable to perform, until she found it hidden under his dressing room settee, thus shaming him into appearing with her in a scene on screen at last. Such was Orson’s fear of taking on the role of his life, Falstaff, showing that this mighty man still possessed human fallibilities. No such problems in Cooper’s case, on goes the schnozzle and on it stays. But if we all end up staring at it, what good it was to the movie itself?

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

Let us now turn to the matter of more serious mistakes, omissions, blunders and directorial blindness that Cooper is prone to and ultimately responsible for. But these crimes and misdemeanours pale in the light of over-weaning vanity which smothers the whole enterprise like a cloak of untreatable plague: Bradley’s performance as Lenny. When one has to say that his attempt to master the art of chain smoking scored a mere six out of ten, compared to Lenny’s twenty out of ten, one’s heart begins to sink. (In fact a whole fascinating documentary awaits the incautious director who undertakes to tell the story of nicotine addiction amongst creative classes. Cigarette smoking killed both Lenny and his wife, alongside Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole and Robert Taylor, together with a slew of stars active in the 30s, 40s and 50s.) Kurt Vonnegut was eloquent in defence of the weed, writing fascinatingly about the power of trading cigarettes for all and any kind of favour in war zones (“Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.”) Lennie was permitted to smoke anywhere he chose to be, otherwise he would not be there at all. To see him without a cigarette in hand was as if he appeared on the podium in boxer pants. In fact, it occurs to me now that his furious conducting, one place he was disallowed the weed, was an attempt to keep both hands occupied and therefore from reaching for the fag packet and Zippo.

Quite apart from Cooper’s inability to deal with complex and contentious issues head-on, he embraces a dumbfounding decision to leave a crucial chunk of Bernstein’s life and work, from 1951 till the early seventies, entirely blank. These years were amongst Lenny’s most productive and open to proper critical examination, particularly in regard to the various prestigious appointments he received. There is no doubt that Bernstein was a practised and at the very least slippery operator, playing his 50% straight hand against gay rivals with barely a backwards glance. His shamelessness was cleverly concealed and emerged, if ever at all, to the uninitiated as mere elements of an artistic temperament. With the probable exception of murder (actual or career), as opposed to character assassination, Lenny could surmount almost any obstacle in his path.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

Ultimately what Cooper was facing was the almost insurmountable task of making a film about someone heroic, universally admired, praised and very successful, in my view a certain way to a directorial dusty death. With those flicks that do succeed, such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Shawshank Redemption and The Aviator, most people would have difficulty in actually naming the protagonist. Who were they actually about? The question is not so much who, but what? And the answer is plain for all to see, the inevitable descent from even modest success to abject failure which cynics would maintain is the story of most if not all of our lives. Don’t almost all of us identify with the flawed hero, for in them we see a reflection of ourselves? How much less of a challenge to make a film about failure, and here the list is far easier to assemble beginning with the greatest of all, Citizen Kane, followed by such as: Once Upon a Time in America, Elmer Gantry, Aguirre, Wrath of God, and almost all of John Ford’s films starring John Wayne (with the possible exception of the earliest, Stagecoach).

Even our greatest comedians were much better practised in the art of failure than success: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the joint kings of Failureland, Laurel and Hardy. In perhaps their greatest short film directed by Leo McCary, L and H only reach their nemesis by the simultaneous destruction of a neighbour’s house at the expense of seeing their new car being gradually but inevitably reduced to metal shards. In another short we see their priceless and failed attempts to get a heavy piano to the top of a steep and apparently endless flight of stairs. Two hugely successful laugh-out-loud movies depicting the paralysing nature of failure. Very well you may ask, trawling around for a film highlighting success, what about Oppenheimer? Here surely is a film about one of the greatest successes of all, the making of the first atomic bomb? Gottcha! Well, actually, no, as Oppenheimer thought of himself as an abject failure in preventing the proliferation of his creation almost certainly resulting, sooner or later, in the ending of the world as we know it. Christopher Nolan’s monumental epic is a milestone in the depiction of a man who achieves all he could wish for but ends up as a fragile and intensely vulnerable man riven with doubts and regrets. Much easier than trying to show us the indefinable aspects of genius which are frankly not possible to depict: the art of conducting (impossible); charisma (impossible); the creation of great music (equally impossible). I’m afraid Mr Cooper’s Maestro had the cards stacked against it from the start.

Maestro. (L to R) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer), and Brian Klugman as Aaron Copland in Maestro. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

All in all then an entirely hopeless, hapless case resulting in a hopeless and hapless film. But in truth I can’t think of any director with enough musical knowledge to undertake such a challenge. The only way to transmit the essence of Lenny to a contemporary audience would be to embrace a documentary format and trawl disparate materials from at least a hundred or more different archives. This would allow us to see his genius, charm, articulateness, inspirational compositions, concert grabbing performances as a pianist, and his immense skills as a teacher to audiences of all kinds. Then, from within these interconnecting elements, put together a patchwork portrait of the man with all his charisma, wit, fire and passion that penetrated and transmitted to us through any camera lens trained upon him. He was, in my opinion, the intellectual and super-articulate equivalent of Marilyn Munroe with all her sensuality and innocent charm. But in terms of sheer sex appeal alone, I would have to declare a dead heat. Mr Cooper, kindly leave the stage!