“Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s intimate portrait of Leonard Bernstein, takes flight with a terrific whoosh of exuberance. The young Bernstein (played by Cooper) has just gotten the phone call that will change his life. He’s been asked to step in for an ailing guest conductor and lead the New York Philharmonic; it will be his conducting debut. Overjoyed, Lenny, as he’s often called, jumps up, throws open a curtain and then sprints out of his apartment to race, bathrobe flapping, into his dazzling, very public future as an American genius.
The real Bernstein was 25 and an assistant conductor with the Philharmonic when he took the Carnegie Hall stage on Nov. 14, 1943, to polite applause. The program opened with Schumann, ended with Wagner, and by the time it was over, the house, as Bernstein’s brother, Burton, put it, “roared like one giant animal in a zoo.” The next day, The New York Times ran a story about the concert on the front page. A few days later, The Times followed up on the concert with a small item that likened Bernstein’s debut to a young corporal taking charge of a platoon when the officers are down: “It’s a good American success story.”
In “Maestro,” Cooper explores the definition — and brutal toll — of that kind of success with deep sympathy, lushly beautiful wall-to-wall music and great narrative velocity. In outline, it’s a familiar story of a classic American striver. Bernstein was the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants who escaped a dire fate in the family business (the Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Company) to become a 20th-century cultural force. He conducted and composed, wrote for the ballet, the opera and Broadway, and was a fixture on TV. He had gold and platinum albums, was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and won slews of Grammys and Emmys.
It was a big juicy life, one that Cooper — who wrote the script with Josh Singer — has condensed into two eventful, visually expressive hours. “Maestro” is as ambitious as Cooper’s fine directorial debut, “A Star Is Born,” but the new movie is more self-consciously cinematic. Some of the choices — different aspect ratios as well as the use of both black-and-white and color film — nod at the look of movies from earlier eras. The visuals also convey interiority, swells of mood and feeling, as does Lenny’s explosive, at times ecstatic physicality, the full-bodied intensity of his conducting style and the orgasmic rivers of sweat that pour off him.
“Maestro” is a fast-paced chronicle of towering highs, crushing lows and artistic milestones, most delivered in a personal key. Cooper packs a lot in without overexplaining the era or its titans (Brian Klugman plays the composer Aaron Copland, one of Bernstein’s closest friends); years pass in an eyeblink, events slip by obliquely or go unmentioned. Cooper is more interested in feelings than happenings, though part of what makes the movie pop and gives it currency is how he complicates the familiar Great Man of History template. Bernstein is rightly the main event in “Maestro,” but crucial to the film’s meaning is his relationship with his family, especially his wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (a brittle Carey Mulligan).
Theirs was a fraught, decades-long relationship that begins in the 1940s when they meet at one of those fabulously glamorous New York parties that mostly exist in old Hollywood films or in biographies of very important dead people. There, amid a boisterous crowd of revelers wreathed in cigarette smoke and bobbing together on an ocean of booze, Lenny and his pals Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Mallory Portnoy and Nick Blaemire) are lighting up the room. Lenny and Felicia make their introductions, tuck into a quiet corner to flirt and laugh, their heads and bodies soon listing toward each other. By the time the night is over, they’re walking side by side, seemingly destined for a happily ever after.
It didn’t turn out exactly that way for assorted reasons, including Bernstein’s overshadowing brilliance. He was also gay, though maybe bisexual; the movie nimbly avoids labeling him. (In her memoir “Famous Father Girl,” his daughter Jamie refers to him as both.) Instead, with roundelays of teasing and desiring looks as well as in asides and conversations (including a faithful restaging of an Edward R. Murrow interview), “Maestro” expresses the complexities of Lenny’s private and public selves. After Lenny receives that call to conduct the Philharmonic, for one, he playfully taps drumlike on the discreetly covered rear of his lover, David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). And then Lenny rushes out the door alone.
The opener introduces the idea of Lenny’s life as a performance, which becomes the film’s controlling metaphor. Cooper underscores this idea repeatedly, including when Felicia takes Lenny to the empty theater where she’s an understudy and where they playfully act out a love scene they seal with a Hollywood kiss. Sometime later, in an energetic swerve into surrealism, Felicia grabs his hand, and they sprint from an outdoor meal with friends and into another theater where three dancers in white sailor uniforms are waiting onstage. As with Lenny’s dash out of his bedroom and into Carnegie Hall, Cooper stages this sprint with the camera pointing down at the characters, as if it were running on an overhead catwalk.
As Felicia and Lenny race into the theater, they look like performers hitting their marks and a bit like dollhouse runaways. The dancers start performing “Fancy Free” — Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’s ballet about sailors on shore leave in New York — then move into its musical adaptation, “On the Town.” With Felicia and Lenny watching, the sailors begin moving to the infectiously alive, jazzy music, their snaky hips and tight uniforms emphasizing the choreography’s muscular eroticism; and then a sailor beckons Lenny to join in the fun.
Here and elsewhere, Cooper makes a point of showing Felicia watching Lenny first with what seems to be admiration, then love and later something darker, sadder and despairing. He’s already a name when they meet and already taking up a lot of room; soon, he is the star around which everything and everyone orbits, including Felicia and the three children they have together. He’s a bigger-than-big personality (flamboyance is a favorite adjective of Bernstein biographers), with a buzzing, heady vitality that feels like a life force or a painfully addictive high. It’s easy to see why she’s pulled in, but the exhilaration that initially lifts the film is a harder sell once Felicia and Lenny begin to fall in love.
The movie makes the case that their love was genuine, even if Cooper and Mulligan never convincingly sync up. This disconnect doesn’t seem intentional, but it also serves the story and characters, including early on when Lenny’s and Felicia’s heightened emotions and smiles can feel forced, like an act of mutual will. Even so, you believe they love each other, however differently; and because Cooper spends a lot of time on Felicia, you grow to understand that she knows she’ll never be enough for Lenny. Yet in focusing so much on Felicia, whose light dims the brighter his blazes, stressing what it costs her to play a role in this performance of happy heterosexuality, Cooper also inadvertently shortchanges Lenny.
Although Cooper makes Felicia the linchpin of his Great Man revisionism, the film’s most deeply felt scenes involve Lenny with his children and his close male friends. One centers on an anguished encounter he has with David. The other unfolds at Lenny and Felicia’s country home after the birth of one of their children and finds him walking across the lawn, the newborn in his arms. Lenny drifts over to Aaron Copland, who’s sitting under a tree on a swing with a smile. Lenny joins him and gently holds the baby so that Aaron can see the baby’s face. Lenny nuzzles the infant, and the two men just sit quietly as the tenderness of the moment — and the overwhelming cruelty of this world and all its terrible lies — knocks you flat.
Rated R for some discreet nudity and a whole lot of cigarettes and booze. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. In theaters.