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Bradley Cooper wields the baton as Bernstein

Netflix must be doing something right. But killing the release potential of their own movies before release, right? That’s downright stupid when it comes to “Maestro,” the new movie from director, co-writer, producer and star Bradley Cooper.

It opens in theaters this week, but not as you might notice. It opens in a singular theater in Chicago. Landmark Century Center Cinema. The Netflix streaming premiere will take place on December 20.

For a film made with the full and careful approval of Leonard Bernstein’s estate and surviving family members, “Maestro” is much more interesting, nuanced and engaging than the usual Squaresville biopic. Millions of people crave Bernstein’s music, and it is throughout the film, often to striking effect. Bernstein’s legacy includes (for starters) “On the Town”, “Candide” (overture alone, taken in preferred tempo, key Wow!reason enough to rejoice) and “West Side Story.”

Bernstein, known as Lenny to his friends, breezed through the time he had. His forever debated status as the first American superstar chef of the 20th century, his uneasy bisexual relationships, marriages and children… We could go on and on until his death at the age of 72 in 1990, and Bernstein certainly did. life provides exciting cinematic discoveries.

Cooper’s second feature film as a director, following the remake of “A Star is Born” released in 2018, focuses on Bernstein’s second marriage in 1951 to actress Felicia Montealegre, played by the famous Carey Mulligan. Following a foreword, Cooper’s script, co-written with Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “First Man”), begins on a bed in 1943. Bernstein, then 25, was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and wanted more. He gets a call: guest chef Bruno Walter has the flu and can’t come. The Carnegie Hall concert must go on that night. Bernstein takes over, no rehearsals, great success. The man in Bernstein’s bed at the time is one of many events to come.

“Maestro” bounces around exhilaratingly; It’s a bit like going through a big fancy notebook, more or less but definitely not in chronological order. Bernstein’s first meeting with Costa Rican-Chilean Montealegre, a newcomer to New York, has been attributed to the 1944 Bernstein ballet score “Fancy Free,” which was the direct inspiration for the Broadway musical “On the Town.” It’s a whirlwind passage into a musical theater dream ballet on screen (at one point Cooper becomes one of three sailors on the Bernstein trail). The first scenes from their lives together and apart are shot in black and white; The later scenes of the chronology appear colorful.

Felicia knew about Lenny’s affairs from the beginning and tried to make peace with them. She also knew that she would live surrounded by acolytes worshiping at what she called the “LB altar.” Even though Mulligan gets top billing, the film doesn’t quite justify it; As in Cooper’s “Star is Born,” Cooper as a director has a penchant for slowly taking a final cut underneath his female co-star.

Much of the later episodes of “Maestro” deal with Felicia’s cancer and her death at age 56, as well as the Bernsteins becoming consumed by the crisis that emerges at the end of their compartmentalized lives. Here, “Maestro” rightfully slows down its tempo. Rather than playing this part of the story as a long exodus, Mulligan, superb throughout, takes each moment as it comes, and the result is an unusually realistic (to my knowledge) portrayal of this woman’s painful, complicated farewell.

Early in the film, a similarly riveting key sequence focuses on a long-delayed burst of emotion in a one-time sustained argument in Bernstein’s New York apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It doesn’t look, feel, move or build like a movie argument; it feels like life and is refreshingly well acted by Mulligan and Cooper. The sight of a giant inflated Snoopy balloon floating outside the window — it’s Thanksgiving — is the perfect ironic complement.

Not everything in the movie works on this level. There are times when Cooper’s vocal and physical details in the role of Bernstein at various stages of his life, from his 20s to his early 70s, come off as a meticulous imitation rather than an impression of the man (not the Rich Little kind). In addition, comprehensive and high-quality prosthetics also mean a lot, although I agree. Positive assessment by the Anti-Defamation League Cooper’s controversial Bernstein nose. (Early photos of Cooper in costume and makeup did the prosthetics no favors.) Wildly talented in so many ways, Cooper has a few things to learn about the art and value of processing years of research as an artist a little more selectively.

The supporting cast doesn’t get much screen time, but they are excellent: Sarah Silverman, for example, as Bernstein’s all-seeing sister, Shirley, or Matt Bomer as musician David Oppenheim, one of Bernstein’s lovers. The famous couple at the heart of “Maestro” was what they called a “New York marriage” at a time when flamboyant gay lives were lived at extreme risk. The film is perhaps imperfectly modest, but Cooper captures the seductive hunger and flamboyance of his subject, who is soaring past his years, as if guided by the line from Tony Curtis’s “The Sweet Smell of Success”: “In short, the best of anything is good enough for me now.” ”

Part of “Maestro” stylizes the action set piece with music, similar to how Elton John literally lifts his star on the rise during his Los Angeles debut in the biopic “Rocket Man.” The highs of Cooper’s sophomore feature run on the rocket fuel of Bernstein’s particular musical drive. According to the memory of her daughter Jamie Bernstein, Felicia sacrificed a lot; actually everything. The movie doesn’t go that far; “Maestro” might have been stronger if it had paid more attention to Felicia, but that is not the movie Cooper made. But it doesn’t shy away from complex, unresolved contradictions, as so many movies about famous artists do.

In other words, there’s a lot to discuss here. And “Maestro” is a decent enough movie to deserve a real theatrical release before the Netflix streaming quagmire.

“Maestro” – 3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for some language and drug use)

Running time: 2:09

How to watch: Chicago premieres Dec. 1 at Landmark Century Center, 2828 N. Clark St.; Netflix streaming premiere on December 20.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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