Sikelia Productions, 2023
Bradley Cooper / Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer
📷 : Used with Permission, Netflix
Thought-provoking movies and TV shows
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
I have this thing about presumptuousness in writing. When statements are prefaced with terms like “simply,” “of course,” and “obviously,” I encourage authors to consider that the knowledge they are asserting is not necessarily known to their reader, so it is neither simple nor obvious. Thus, qualifiers should be removed. We should assume nothing. The film, Maestro, exemplifies this notion, which is why “Oscar contender” is likely written all over it. I am surprised to see this theater-worthy film from the comfort of my sofa, but lucky me. Director and lead actor, Bradley Cooper, outdoes himself with this biopic of Leonard Bernstein, whose 72-year life spans the identity politics divide.
The film begins with a quote from the music virtuoso himself, which reads in part, “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them …” In an era where we seem to want and expect simple answers to some of life’s most complex questions, this statement gives us pause. It forces us to consider how far removed we are from a past when we thought for ourselves rather than relying on technology, Internet search engines, and now artificial intelligence for straightforward answers.
Most researchers recognize that the questions they seek to answer with their qualitative and quantitative methods will offer some insight into the problems they are trying to solve. But in the course of their work, their results will also raise questions that require more research to be conducted by themselves and others in their discipline. In effect then, and to Bernstein’s point, a question is never fully answered. We just gain deeper insight into the scale and complexity of the problem.
Leonard Bernstein was by any measure a musical genius, but what I learned from Maestro is that his depth of understanding for people and humanity were uncanny. According to the film, even “Lenny’s” wife of more than 25 years, who marries him knowing his sexual preference for men, cares for him deeply and he for her. Some of us might ask how this could be. How could she marry him knowing this? During a remote radio interview from their home soon after marrying, she talks proudly and incessantly about how busy “Lenny” is composing and directing. So, status maybe? What was she thinking? What hubris to think she could change him!
Played by Carey Mulligan, Felicia, Bernstein’s wife, says to her sister-in-law Shirley Bernstein (Sarah Silverman) decades into their marriage and now with children (paraphrasing), “I’ve always known about Lenny. But I still love him.” So, if we learn anything from Leonard Bernstein’s story, and there is plenty to learn, it is that nothing is ever simple.
Just as remarkable as Bernstein’s life is the film presentation itself. Director Bradley Cooper presents the first half of the movie in black and white, giving it the feel of a 1940s era film. Bernstein is constantly surrounded by large groups of musically talented friends who each keep a cigarette in their mouth or between their fingers and a bar glass with a drink nearby – and never far away from a piano. Most of the men are openly gay, as evidenced by the way they touch one another on the behind and casually rub each other’s backs and hair in the presence of others. Sometimes they even kiss. No one seems to notice or care. Interestingly, these public displays of affection are not depicted among the women in the group, which makes the playing out of gender seem out of balance. There’s a lot of noise and chatter with infectious happiness and celebration seemingly about nothing in particular. Their exchanges are more like quipping than deep engagements in conversation. It is as if they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are having too much fun and too much musical success to do so.
The circumstances surrounding the circle of 20 or so friends change as time changes. When the presentation converts from monochromatic to color, the speech tempo slows as if to suggest they are all getting older now. One of the first colorized scenes is yet another gathering of the friends, now older and some married, even those who are gay. A few are new to the group, including a gay gentleman who guffaws when Bernstein says that he is married. Laws at that time did not allow for same-sex marriage, so the man rightly assumes Bernstein is married to a woman. The man’s cynicism signals the ushering in of politics around sexual identity during this time, roughly the 1960s. Prior to this period, no one seemed to care about one’s sexual orientation or more likely tolerated the differences in sexuality. Sensitivities seem heightened with television media, perhaps, due to its ability to beam into living rooms how a gay person, such as Bernstein, displays his sexual identity. Bernstein, though, dismisses the man’s laughter as if wondering what all the fuss is about, not yet realizing times were changing and he might have to figure out how to balance his lifestyle with his wide popularity.
Watching this film is like being in a time capsule that spans 70 years. Bernstein’s music sets the mood, providing the audio that signals the ebb and flow of the composer’s life. The dynamic music is racy and powerful in his younger years and smooths out as he gets older. Indeed, the film itself feels like a musical performance on stage with multiple acts across the chronology of the genius’s life. It mimics the look and style of the Humphrey Bogart movies, Casablanca and To Have and Have Not with cigarettes, drinks, and all. This is fitting for a guy like Bernstein who lived his life on his own terms, accepting – no, embracing it with all its complexity. Damn our perplexity about it!