“Maestro” Honors the Chaotic Charisma of Leonard Bernstein

By admin Dec18,2023

In 1955, Leonard Bernstein explored the art of conducting on an episode of the CBS show “Omnibus.” After leading a studio orchestra through the opening bars of Brahms’s First Symphony, Bernstein walks away from the podium and turns to the camera, leaving the orchestra to continue playing behind him. “Well, you see, they don’t need me,” he says, with an ironic smile. “They do perfectly well by themselves.” According to Bernstein’s script, which can be viewed at the Library of Congress’s online archive, the musicians were supposed to have devolved into dissonant chaos. On the broadcast, though, they carry on creditably for another twelve bars. This is a more plausible outcome: with signals from the concertmaster, an ensemble can navigate standard repertory on its own, as the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has proved for decades. The New York Philharmonic has a tradition of playing Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture with no one on the podium—no one visible, at least.

Conductors are still necessary, as Bernstein goes on to explain. They not only guide performances but mold interpretations in rehearsal, monitor standards, evaluate auditions, attend to administrative matters, raise money, and shape the repertory. The rarest members of the species add an unquantifiable charismatic charge, one that elevates both the musicians’ playing and the audience’s perception of it. The most spectacular modern instance of that phenomenon was, of course, Bernstein himself. In 1984, when I was fifteen, I watched the legendary Lenny rehearse Mahler’s Second Symphony at National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C. I had the impression of a superhuman aliveness—a dire, sweaty passion for music and sound. Afterward, I had a momentous conversation with the great man. I said to him, “My name is Alex.” Bernstein replied, “I have a son named Alexander.” That was it. I felt vaguely blessed nonetheless.

Throughout his life, Bernstein was mocked for his physical flamboyance on the podium. Critics accused him of showing off for the audience—“gyrations” and “acrobatics” were favored jabs—but he insisted that his exertions were primarily for the orchestra’s benefit. On “Omnibus,” he said of the conductor’s responsibility to the players, “He must make them love the music as he loves it.” If he goes all out, so will the musicians. Indeed, Bernstein did his dance whether or not an audience or a camera was present. His body reacted to music in an immediate, visceral way. I could see that as I gawked from a row of empty seats at National Cathedral.

Bradley Cooper’s new movie “Maestro,” a portrait of Bernstein’s marriage to the Costa Rican American actress Felicia Montealegre, has a scene that features the Mahler Second and takes place in a cathedral—Ely Cathedral, in England. Cooper, who stars as Bernstein, is presiding over the vocal-orchestral conflagration with which the symphony ends. The sequence mimics a television film of Bernstein and the London Symphony performing the Mahler Second at Ely, in 1973. Cooper’s impersonation falls short of the real thing, as it must; his gestures are more angular and herky-jerky than Bernstein’s, less flowingly assured. But he is conducting: he is ahead of the beat, attuned to fluctuations of tempo, alert to instrumental and vocal entrances. The London Symphony, appearing as itself, responds with palpable force. You forget that you are watching a star actor play a star conductor; you become immersed in Mahler’s molten flow. For that reason, it’s one of the most striking music scenes recently put on film.

A Hollywood treatment of Bernstein’s life feels inevitable, even belated. The man exuded movie-star glamour from the moment he burst into view, in the mid-nineteen-forties. He once made a screen test for a projected film in which he would star as Tchaikovsky. In a way, Bernstein’s meteoric rise was a role that had been written for him in advance; in the thirties and forties, Hollywood was peculiarly obsessed with classical-music story lines of the star-is-born type: plucky young opera singers, swaggering young virtuosos, and moody young composers fight the odds and make it big. (Ronald Reagan, playing a member of the last category in the 1941 film “Million Dollar Baby,” goes around saying things like “Wagner was a ham.”) America was thus primed for the real-life tale of a hair-product-salesman’s son who makes an electrifying début with the New York Philharmonic and composes symphonies, operas, and musicals on the side.

The American public had even seen movies in which famous conductors played themselves. “One Hundred Men and a Girl,” from 1937, starred Leopold Stokowski alongside Deanna Durbin; “Music for Millions,” from 1944, featured José Iturbi with Margaret O’Brien and Jimmy Durante. Both films were directed by the German émigré Henry Koster, who grew up in a musical milieu and handled the orchestra scenes with striking panache. Stokowski and Iturbi portray, in their different ways, imperious eminences who show kindness toward the struggling performers in their midst. They are Old World figures adapting to casual, democratic American ways. Bernstein, with his cultivated accent and his boyish enthusiasm, represented the completion of that absorptive process.

In later decades, Hollywood’s friendliness toward classical music dwindled. These days, someone who listens to Bach for pleasure is more likely to be a cannibalistic serial killer or a sadistic James Bond villain than a functioning human being. In movies as various as “Five Easy Pieces,” “Shine,” “The Piano Teacher,” and “Tár,” a career in music is treated pathologically, as a life of repression, neurosis, and/or cultivated cruelty. There are, to be sure, more positive depictions, but for the most part classical music serves as a shorthand for emotional aberration. Pop music, in contrast, is generally treated as a medium of liberation and fulfillment, even if its practitioners are destroyed in the process. Hollywood wields hegemonic power, yet, like many a right-wing politician, it likes to cast itself as the valiant opponent of phantasmagoric élites.

Notably, “Maestro” spurns that facile pathologizing process. Not that it presents an idealized picture of Bernstein’s life: we see the uglier side of the man’s personality, especially in his later years, when he drank to excess and behaved grotesquely. Yet the decline of the effervescent young Bernstein isn’t framed as the necessary outcome of the culture he inhabits. This melancholy dervish finds in music a sustained ecstasy that eludes him in life, although at certain splendid instants those separate worlds collide. The Mahler sequence is the only part of the film in which Bernstein is absolutely, unrestrainedly happy.

“Maestro” is persuasive as biography in large measure because Bernstein doesn’t actually have to carry the story. The pivotal character is Montealegre, whom Carey Mulligan portrays as an outwardly poised, inwardly smoldering woman who resists being engulfed in her husband’s shadow. She isn’t simply the victim of an all-devouring narcissistic temperament; she admits that she fooled herself into thinking that she could control the uncontrollable. The scenes between the two, whether flirtatious, enraged, or regretful, are uncomfortably intimate to watch; so, too, are the anxious cavortings of their children.

Because Bernstein’s career unfolds in the background of his marriage, the film is relieved of the dreary trudge of the conventional bio-pic, which checks off famous moments, positions them against historical landmarks (the Cold War, the Beatles, the Kennedy assassinations), and introduces subsidiary characters with clunky exposition. The actor-author Simon Callow has pointed out that “dialogue is the undoing of most musical bio-pics,” citing a line from Ken Russell’s 1974 film, “Mahler”: “But, Alma, don’t you see? The andante of the Sixth Symphony—it’s you!” Happily, when Aaron Copland shows up “Maestro,” no one says, “Hey, Aaron, congratulations on winning a Pulitzer Prize for ‘Appalachian Spring’!” You don’t need to know who Copland is to understand his interplay as Bernstein’s idol, friend, and occasional lover.

The authors of the “Maestro” screenplay—Josh Singer and Cooper himself—stay almost maniacally close to the biographical record. The film begins and ends with simulations of Bernstein’s 1980 interview with Mike Wallace, for “60 Minutes.” Other scenes re-create extant documents more or less verbatim: Bernstein giving instructions to Jerome Robbins during the gestation of the ballet “Fancy Free”; Edward R. Murrow interviewing the Bernsteins in 1955; the conductor’s rambling conversations with the critic John Gruen in the late sixties (“I love music so much that it keeps me glued to life, even when I’m most depressed”); the quasi-coming-out speech that Bernstein delivered to a bewildered Philharmonic audience in 1976 (“I had to do this for myself, to live the rest of my life as I want”); and a master class on interpreting the Beethoven Eighth (“If I’m wrong, tell me”). The personal exchanges, too, are scrupulously sourced. Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein’s chief mentor, indeed advised his pupils to comport themselves so that they could say, “My life and my work are clean.” When Montealegre tells Bernstein that she knows of his homosexuality and that they should still “give it a whirl,” the line comes from one of her letters. And, yes, she later predicted that he would die a “lonely old queen.”

Cooper’s impersonation of Bernstein starts a little shakily, with an attempt at conjuring the maestro in his golden-boy phase. The actor’s voice is pitched a little high and has a nervous edge; Bernstein spoke with baritonal assurance from the start. Also, though Cooper is a handsome guy, the young Lenny was something else again. Later, the embodiment becomes uncanny, thanks in part to trompe-l’oeil prosthetics by Kazu Hiro (the nose is of no note) and spot-on costumes by Mark Bridges (including a ridiculous and absolutely authentic Gilbert-and-Sullivan sailor outfit). Events are reënacted in the places where they happened, including the Koussevitzky house at Tanglewood and the Bernstein house in Fairfield, Connecticut. Most important, Cooper has the mellifluously croaking voice down pat.

Of course, a painstaking devotion to detail is no guarantee of believability. Some viewers may find the prevailing discourse stilted and artificial. They might not realize that Bernstein was himself a highly theatrical creation, so secure in his command of language that he always seemed to be reciting lines, even if the words were just popping into his head. The script deftly captures his dialect. On Thanksgiving morning, he asks the kids, “Who abandoned Snoopy in the vestibule?” The movie is most wrenching when the eternal orator finds that his verbal dexterity avails him nothing. In one scene, he informs his daughter Jamie that rumors about his gay affairs are untrue. After unfurling this blatant lie, he falls silent, in visible agony. At this moment and at several others, the film’s title becomes ironic.

By and large, “Maestro” benefits from what it leaves out. Some viewers have complained that such major achievements as “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” and the Young People’s Concerts are mentioned only in passing. But Bernstein’s life was so stuffed with incident that nodding to each one would have drained the movie of momentum. One omission, though, left me perplexed: the studious avoidance of Bernstein’s radical-tending politics. In the early nineteen-fifties, his name was placed on the F.B.I.’s Security Index, and he was temporarily unable to renew his passport. Later, Richard Nixon developed the paranoid idea that Bernstein’s syncretic-psychedelic “Mass,” which had its première at the opening of the Kennedy Center, in 1971, was a scheme to embarrass him. White House documents show how G. Gordon Liddy, Bud Krogh, Pat Buchanan, and other Nixon operatives strategized a response.

Cooper, in a conversation with David Remnick for the New Yorker Radio Hour, revealed that he had originally intended to bring politics into the frame, in the form of a scene devoted to the Bernsteins’ notorious fund-raiser for the Black Panthers, in 1970. Montealegre hosted the event, but her husband predictably made himself the center of attention, reeling off such phrases as “I dig absolutely.” Tom Wolfe responded with “Radical Chic,” a twenty-five-thousand-word sneer for New York. That article fit snugly with a counter-intelligence effort by the F.B.I., which manufactured letters accusing the Bernsteins of consorting with antisemites. Cooper removed the scene, he says, because it unduly complicated the narrative. Bernstein needed to remain the primary villain, through the marriage plot.

That logic makes sense, and the reactionary hipsterism of “Radical Chic” has dogged the Bernstein clan long enough. Still, the script’s almost total silence on Bernstein’s politics is strange, particularly when it ignores prompts from the sources that it otherwise follows assiduously. For example, we hear Bernstein telling Gruen how useless he feels in the face of a world “on the verge of collapse,” but we don’t hear him talking about nuclear arsenals and political lies, as he does on the original tape. A few glimpses of ideological passion would have enriched the picture without destabilizing the central story. Bernstein’s Jewishness is muted, too, apart from a moment in which Koussevitzky suggests that his protégé change his name to Leonard S. Burns. Of Bernstein’s various cameos on the historical stage, none had greater impact than his appearances with the Israel Philharmonic during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Yet “Maestro” is a complete enough achievement that there is no point in dwelling on what it might have done differently. What’s most significant is the fundamental respect that the film shows for music and musicians—which is not the same as awe for Bernstein himself. The Mahler scene in Ely Cathedral gives a potent sense of why people devote so many thousands of hours of their lives to learning and perfecting their practice. Although the conductor is at the heart of the spectacle, the music is coming from two hundred other bodies, and they are building something as immense as the mass of stone around them. The most daring thing is how long the sequence goes—six minutes, nearly five per cent of the movie’s running time. You can imagine a producer shouting, “Cut! Cut! They’ll be bored!” But no one looks away. ♦

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