Netflix has ‘Maestro’ mania. But for this music critic, the essence of Lenny is missing

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein conducts an orchestra
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony in “Maestro.”
(Jason McDonald / Netflix)

“Maestro” is pretty good. At least that appears to be the overall verdict from critics and audiences (80% and 85% positive ratings, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes). In my sphere, the classical music community reaction has been a collective sigh of relief.

The Leonard Bernstein biopic is not mean-spirited as “Tár,” about a fictional conductor and Bernstein prodigy. Besides being a great conductor, composer, pianist and educator, Bernstein wrote a winning bestseller, “Joy of Music,” and thankfully “Maestro” is not joyless.

At the world premiere of the film in Venice, Italy, Bernstein’s three children were seen dancing in the aisles as the credits rolled. At the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where I saw “Maestro” as part of the AFI Fest, Jamie Bernstein jubilantly introduced the screening by saying that Bradley Cooper — the film’s director and star — nailed her dad. Ditto Carey Mulligan, who portrays her mother, actress Felicia Montealegre Bernstein.


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One of the reasons why “Maestro” comes across as pretty good, or maybe even a little better than that, is because it is not really about music. Cooper was strongly influenced by Jamie Bernstein’s memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” and in fine Hollywood fashion better realizes not what made her father famous but what he was really like. The man behind the myth.

“Maestro” is seemingly an ironic title. As the first American-born conductor to become music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, Bernstein did away with many Old World formalities and grand maestro-esque titles. He was Lenny to just about everybody.

Bisexual, Bernstein began an affair in 1971 with a dazzlingly brilliant young man from Pasadena, Thomas Cothran, which, when discovered by Felicia, led to a breakup of the Bernsteins’ marriage. Tom happened to be a classmate of mine at Pasadena High School and we became good friends. He’s Tommy in “Maestro” (he never would have put up with that from anyone other than Bernstein) and dismissed in the film as little more than a casual attraction.

Tom and Lenny lived together for a predictably incompatible year. Tom had little patience for Lenny’s late-night bouts of insecurity and, by his telling, was able to trim some of the excesses from Bernstein’s 1973 Norton Lectures, “The Unanswered Question,” at Harvard University.

A black-and-white photo of a woman leaning against a man's back, both smiling
Carey Mulligan, left, as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro.”
(Jason McDonald / Netflix)

Bernstein returned to Felicia when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1976, and her death in 1978 was a terrible trauma for him. He never appeared to get over it. Fraught family life is obvious dramatic biopic fodder. But left out of this saga was the importance of Tom, who collaborated with Bernstein until Tom’s death from AIDS, reportedly, in 1987.


Other than this, the glimpses of family life are no doubt accurate. Cooper consulted with the Bernstein siblings, and they gave him permission to shoot at the family house in Connecticut. Makeup makes Cooper look like a close facsimile of the old Bernstein and a sort-of facsimile of the dashing younger one. Likewise, Cooper convincingly mimics the voice of the elder Lenny. He sounds unpleasantly shrill as the hyperactive young conductor and composer taking classical music, Broadway and ballet by storm.

Cooper actorly copies Bernstein’s extravagant conducting style. But he lacks the mysterious magic and magnetism that could hold you and your emotions prisoner. Bernstein wasn’t an actor, he was a seeker. I have never witnessed the kind of shamanistic power in a performance that Bernstein, at his most elevated, could produce. Love or hate his gestures, they are Bernstein in the flesh making music, and they cannot be transferred to anyone else.

That Lenny’s life was chaotic hardly comes as a surprise. He was drawn to many things. He wrote groundbreaking Broadway scores (including “West Side Story”). He conducted with far more animation (and, for a long time, to the scorn of musicians, critics and uptight symphony-goers who wanted their music handed to them pristine). He wrote classical works that dealt with spiritual crises. It is often said that he was the greatest communicator music has ever known. His Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, nationally televised in the mid-1950s and early ’60s, attest to that. They brilliantly demystified classical music to millions of viewers young and old. I was one of them.

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How much Bernstein’s private life personifies such artistry is always going to be a matter of interpretation. He obviously had a huge libido. He was drawn to an unprecedentedly wide range of musical activities and interests. He had an overpowering social conscience and involved himself in political activities.

He was highly literate, and delved deeply and tirelessly into philosophy, psychology and religion. He had an intense relationship with Judaism, questioning everything. He was gregarious and needed people. He was strikingly handsome and exuded sex appeal. He was a chain smoker to the end and drank way too much, put on weight in his 60s and had insomnia. He died in 1990 at 72 of emphysema. He was, above all, a conductor. Call him Lenny but do what he tells you, whether you like it or not.

He was on the road a lot of the time, and it is hardly surprising that Bernstein would have a varied, hyperactive sex life. But, by all accounts, he was a loving father and profoundly devoted, in his own way, to Felicia. There is enough interest in this for a pretty good Hollywood movie.

But that isn’t what made Bernstein exceptional. It is everything else. The fact is Bernstein didn’t have all that much time for family. He was doing a thousand things. When home, moreover, he worked like crazy, composing, studying scores, reading and writing. (He was said to practice the piano very little.)

A conductor leads an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, in a black-and-white photo from the audience view.
Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1963.
(Otto Rothschild / The Music Center)

In the end Lenny’s love for music was the love he could share with the world, but that is far more difficult for an actor to convey. In addition, we’ve seen so much Bernstein onscreen that anyone else trying looks like an AI fake.

Copying Bernstein’s conducting is even more problematic. Cooper impressively mimics Bernstein’s movements in a performance of the apotheosis of Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Ely Cathedral in London, which Bernstein filmed. But you can’t mimic essence. “Don’t copy me,” Bernstein regularly told student conductors.

Worse, though, is the soundtrack, bits and pieces of Bernstein’s music mainly with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The recorded sound is bombastic; instrumental balances, grotesque; the conducting, bland. Had “Maestro” explored Bernstein as musician and shaman more thoroughly, it would have had to show that this soundtrack, which needs to be the heart of the film, goes against everything Bernstein stood for.

The good news is that “Maestro” may turn out to be good enough to promote a small wave of maestromania. Avoid the soundtrack recording at all costs: It is a headache-making mix track from Bernstein hell. But Bernstein’s career happens to have been very well documented on recording and video, and nearly all of it remains readily available on vinyl, CD, DVD, Blu-ray and streaming.

Watch a Young People’s Concert and you’ll likely find one is not enough. If you want to know what Bernstein really thought about love, listen to his “Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium),” a love letter to Felicia that is also a warning that he was a rapturous and vivacious lover with an endless appetite. Bernstein’s recordings of this quasi-violin concerto with Gidon Kremer as soloist make the rapture absolutely real.


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