Maestro is a 2023 American biographical drama film that centers on the relationship between American composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre. It was directed by Bradley Cooper, from a screenplay he wrote with Josh Singer. It was produced by Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Cooper, among others. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Montealegre alongside Cooper as Bernstein; Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, and Sarah Silverman appear in supporting roles.
Maestro premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on September 2, 2023, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion. The film was scheduled for a limited theatrical release on November 22, 2023, before streaming on Netflix on December 20. It received positive reviews from critics.
In a flash-forward to 1987, Leonard Bernstein, at this point nearly 70 years old, performs a piece on the piano for a film crew who are interviewing him. After he is finished playing, he quotes a remark shared to him many years before by his wife Felicia: “if summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you; and if nothing sings in you, then you can’t make music.”
In 1943, Bernstein – then 25 and living in New York City as the assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic – suddenly makes his conducting debut with the Philharmonic when Bruno Walter falls ill. Berstein is exceptional as a substitute, and enjoys a rapturous reception from the audience. At this time, Bernstein is in an intermittent romantic and sexual relationship with clarinettist David Oppenheim. However, his homosexuality is diverted soon afterward, when he meets Felicia Montealegre, an aspiring actress, at a party. They begin dating and sleeping together, and ultimately marry and have three children together: Jamie, Alexander, and Nina.
By the mid-1950s, Leonard and Felicia live a highly affluent life in the public eye, with Leonard having composed several successful operas and Broadway musicals, including Candide and West Side Story. They begin to host lavish parties. Felicia combats concerns raised about Leonard’s homosexual tendencies, insistent that she holds rein over him as his wife. As the years pass, however, Leonard’s dalliances with men – as well as his alcohol and substance abuse – take a deep toll on their marriage. These issues are compounded when Jamie hears whispers of her father’s affairs, and Leonard – in attempting to deny what she has heard as mere rumours, fueled by “jealousies” – only raises his daughter’s suspicions.
Finally, one Thanksgiving, after Leonard returns from a bender late for the family’s festivities, he and Felicia have an explosive argument where she insists that he has hate in his heart, and will “die a lonely old queen” if he continues on his current path. Nonetheless, the couple remain married, through Leonard’s composition of Mass in the early 1970s. In 1973, Bernstein conducts Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in a legendary performance at Ely Cathedral, England. Amidst the uproarious reception, Felicia reconciles with Leonard, insistent that “there’s no hate in [his] heart” anymore.
Felicia is diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of years later; despite surgeries and an aggressive chemotherapy regimen, her condition deteriorates, and she dies in Leonard’s arms in 1978. Overcome with grief, Leonard and the children abandon their lavish home shortly afterward. Bernstein is shown once again in 1987, teaching the art of conducting and still partying, as well as having affairs with his much younger, male students. Finally, returning to the interview, Bernstein admits that he misses Felicia terribly, before his mind flashes back to an image of her, back in their youth, walking into their yard.
- Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre
- Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein
- Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim
- Maya Hawke as Jamie Bernstein
- Sarah Silverman as Shirley Bernstein
- Michael Urie as Jerome Robbins
- Brian Klugman as Aaron Copland
- Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran
- Sam Nivola as Alexander Bernstein
- Miriam Shor as Cynthia O’Neal
- Alexa Swinton as Nina Bernstein
- Josh Hamilton as John Gruen
- June Gable as Old Lady
Maestro featured Bernstein’s compositions from his musicals and operettas which were handpicked by Cooper. Those songs were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and few choral performances by London Symphony Chorus, under the direction of musical conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin who also served as Cooper’s conducting coach. The soundtrack was preceded with an excerpt from the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” as a single on October 20. The full soundtrack was released by Deutsche Grammophon digitally on November 10 and was released physically on December 1.
Maestro premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on September 2, 2023, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion. It received a gala screening as part of the New York Film Festival’s spotlight program on October 2, 2023, making it the first film to hold a premiere at the new David Geffen Hall. Cooper attended the event but did not participate in the post-film Q&A due to restrictions imposed during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Additionally, Maestro screened at the BFI London Film Festival and closed the AFI Fest. The film began a limited theatrical release in the United States on November 22, 2023, before streaming on Netflix on December 20, 2023.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 83% of 180 critics’ reviews are positive, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The website’s consensus reads: “Led by a pair of powerful performances, Maestro serves as a stirring overview of a tremendous talent’s life and legacy.” Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 77 out of 100, based on 52 critics, indicating “generally favorable” reviews.
BBC Culture’s Nicholas Barber wrote, “Maestro confirms what was suggested by Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born. He has sky-high ambitions, and he has the technical virtuosity and big-hearted sincerity to fulfil those ambitions with flair.” David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter termed it a “layered examination” of a complex marriage, and particularly lauded Mulligan’s “heartbreaking” performance.
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