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Is “Maestro” a Leonard Bernstein interpretation or imitation?

Bradley Cooper is involved in everything “Maestro” as director, producer, co-writer (with Josh Singer) and star. Covering much of his subject’s dazzling, chaotic life, Cooper’s performance as musician, composer, conductor, educator, and eternally hungry Leonard Bernstein is second only to Carey Mulligan, who plays Bernstein’s second wife, actress Felicia Montealegre.

The billing seems a bit low when you watch the film at a single theater in Chicago, the Landmark Century Center Cinema, which opened Dec. 1 ahead of its Netflix “Maestro” streaming premiere on Dec. 20. But we will get to it.

Cooper’s second feature film, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September, follows the huge success of “A Star is Born,” which was remade five years ago. There, as the whiskey-soaked country star descended, the actor lowered his speaking voice to a warm Sam Elliott growl.

On “Maestro,” Cooper studies hours of video and audio tapes of his real-life subject, creating a louder, faster approach to Bernstein’s vocal rhythm, while varying degrees and thicknesses of prosthetic makeup do the rest. The trick for any actor in these biographical circumstances is to weave all the external elements into a realistic but not slavishly archival whole.

I’ll be reviewing “Maestro” next week around the film’s Chicago opening. But after the final press screening, I couldn’t wait to sit down with Tribune classical music critic Hannah Edgar and hear what she had to say about it. A musician himself, Edgar spent a summer in 2018 helping curate the touring Leonard Bernstein centennial exhibition under the auspices of the New York Philharmonic Archive.

Over coffee we talked about some initial reactions to Cooper’s embodiment of Bernstein; the focus of this version of his life; and the filmmaker reported six years of preparations for the film’s pivotal conducting scene, which captures Cooper’s “ancient” (Edgar’s word) attack on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a single take as Bernstein.

“Maestro” begins in black-and-white in 1943, with a 25-year-old Lenny in bed with a male lover, receiving an early-morning phone call from his career: He was cast as an understudy with zero rehearsals. time for the sick Bruno Walter. This marks Bernstein’s debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, lighting a fire under his already turbulent ambitions.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Michael Phillips: Hannah, a year ago We talked about “Tár” when it came out, And thanks to you, I left much wiser than when I entered. While watching “Maestro” the other day, did we think of a movie about an orchestra conductor, a composer or any musician?

Hannah Edgar: Honestly, for better or worse, I was reminded of that weird Mahler movie from the 70s.

Phillips: Ken Russell’s “Mahler”! The word is Trippy, okay.

Edgar: I remember seeing this in high school. And what this movie did successfully, at least for me, is what parts of “Maestro” also did successfully, was instead of sort of rote putting you into the rhythm of an individual’s life, it explored how their music creates you. to feel. In my opinion, the fantasy elements of “Maestro” were the strongest. It was a bit of a disappointment for me to see that they were left half-way after the movie started to gain color. In the first black-and-white scenes, we see Bernstein’s life (metaphorically) almost as if he were living in the back of a theater or concert hall.

Phillips: Yes, it’s almost like a full-on musical or ballet, where Bernstein and Felicia have this sort of fantasy first date, where Bernstein is given sheet music to “Fancy Free” and at one point Bernstein dances part of it himself, wearing a sailor costume. . There is also a portion of Bernstein’s “Lonely Town” ballet score from the Broadway musical “On the Town,” inspired by his work with Jerome Robbins on “Fancy Free” earlier that year (1944).

I think “Maestro” will bring great music to many people who haven’t heard it yet. Tell me more about what worked and didn’t work for you here.

Edgar: I loved so many details. They lived in New York City at The Dakota on 72nd Street and Central Park West, right in the parade route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I loved seeing the giant Snoopy float past me while Leonard and Felicia had this epic argument.

Phillips: Isn’t this a great screen discussion? Why did it work for you?

Edgar: Because it felt real. At this point we know that Bernstein is crushed under the weight of his ego, and we also know that he has had trysts with various men over the years. But it was finally revealed. It’s just played in a way that feels authentic. Even if they get along well and are great couples therapists, I don’t know many couples who can keep an argument completely civil. Typically when you have an argument there is a lot behind it and long simmering resentments erupt. It’s hard to watch and I usually cringe when scenes like this happen in movies. But this one in “Maestro” is different. It felt soothing to me.

Phillips: For me too. This scene doesn’t seem very exciting and is played in one long take, with no cuts to the usual emphasis. Compared to that scene, some parts of the movie feel more routine. But I think, although I felt the same emotions while watching “Maestro” as I did in “A Star is Born”, which I also liked, I basically did this job more than you; It’s a way for self-directed Cooper to very subtly steal the focus away from his female leads.

Edgar: One hundred percent! The excellent trailer for “Maestro” makes it seem like a biopic told through the lens of their relationship. However, the movie begins with Lenny receiving a call that he will be making his Carnegie Hall debut. I think it would have been a more effective and sensitive story if it had been told from Felicia’s perspective.

On the other hand: I think there’s a self-awareness that Cooper suggests, and it’s also evident in (his daughter) Jamie Bernstein’s memoirs: You have to sacrifice yourself on the altar of Bernstein’s ego.

Phillips: Cooper gets more screen time as the chef than Cate Blanchett does as Lydia Tár. Who acts as a better conductor?

Edgar: I would say Cooper. But Blanchett had a harder job to do; He also wanted to figure out his fictional character’s own management style.

Phillips: Bernstein has the advantage of being real; There’s so much research material, all the archive video and audio, for an actor to work with. Concerts for young people, conferences, televised concerts, all of them. My question to you is this: Is what we see in “Maestro” a fully fleshed out performance? Or is it more of a studious collection of outward mannerisms?

Edgar: I think Cooper’s seriousness about the research part comes through in the film, and people have already written that he spent six years, on and off, to convincingly conduct six minutes of Mahler like Bernstein. Every imaginable Bernsteinism was packed into these minutes. As a musician, I was watching that scene and thinking: Could I really follow it? I don’t know. Cooper pantomimes conducting. It’s hard to describe it. I admired him as an imitator, but…

Phillips: I think I know what you mean. Cooper is very talented at a lot of things, but I don’t know if he’s ever managed to throw anything off-handed, even when he had to. Mulligan isn’t playing a famous person, but man, he’s a good guy. And when the movie does Felicia justice, it’s worth every second.

Are there any musical biopic clichés that “Maestro” does or does not avoid that we should talk about?

Edgar: Maybe it’s this: What made Bernstein such a unique and creative personality – Jamie talks about this in his book – was that the only thing Bernstein loved more than music was people. This creates a conflict. The story of the tortured genius often involves a story of retreat, but this is not really Bernstein’s story. He wanted to be in the middle of everything. It developed thanks to new people, it developed with the admiration of the people. And Cooper handles this part really well. The look in his eyes when he tastes fame for the first time in “Maestro” excites us throughout the movie.

Phillips: At least to my ears, there’s a lot of George Gershwin in Bernstein’s passion for music; Would you say they have the same struggle between highbrow and middlebrow music, between the concert hall and Broadway or Hollywood?

Edgar: Completely! It was so simple against Gershwin! They were both dealing with anti-Semitism and I’m glad that was included in the film. Bernstein (as a young conductor) was advised to change his surname to Burns. Thank God he didn’t.

Phillips: Let’s end with this question: Can someone like Leonard Bernstein gain a central place in 21st-century popular culture?

Edgar: No. It’s sad to say, but I think his story is a period piece. During Bernstein’s lifetime, there was a national financing apparatus behind classical music and the fine arts. This financing no longer actually exists.

“Maestro” opens Dec. 1 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. The Netflix streaming premiere will be on December 20.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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