During a crucial conversation at the beginning of Maestro‘s third act, Leonard Bernstein’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman) talks to his then-estranged wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan). She explains that he has trouble being merely one thing, and it’s a big theme Cooper invests a lot of time in during this biopic. Indeed, Bernstein’s life was a whole of dualities that sometimes ran into one another. They either created great works in various mediums or were the source of great turmoil that swept up Leonard and the ones he loved in one fell swoop. He was a legendary composer and conductor — with the two creative sides of himself doing a delicate dance between themselves to co-exist.

Then, there was his marriage to Felicia, in which Cooper depicts their first meeting as something from a romantic black-and-white 1940s film. The storybook-like approach to their attraction moves in conjunction with Berstein’s bisexuality, which the film first chronicles in the midst of one of his biggest triumphs. At 25, Bernstein gets a call that New York Philharmonic Bruno Walter has fallen ill and offered the lead. It’s a momentous occasion; one Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique fully highlight with beautiful transition shots from Leonard’s apartment to the opera house. From then on, a star is born, and his muse is clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Maestro‘s first act provides small moments between Bernstein and Oppenheim to give a glance at what their relationship could have been. Once Felicia is introduced in a momentous-like fashion, approaching a party from a bus stop, the film frames their love story as the focus.

Maestro. (L to R) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer) and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre
in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

There are moments depicted in glances where Leonard, David, and Felicia are together, hinting they know of this double he’s living. In a particular conversation, Felicia states she knows who exactly Leonard is and to “give it a whirl.” This is the building principle Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer investigate the most. It’s an opposing sense of duality and how people in this immediate orbit deal with them. For the life of Leonard Bernstein, it’s two things. The first is his love for Felicia and his queerness, which later manifests in the latter part of Maestro. Another is a sense of accomplishment despite all the things he’s achieved. He was a musician, composer, conductor, and teacher, but he still feels melancholy about not doing enough.

An interesting thing Cooper does is use Bernstein’s compositions as a way to move some of the film along into other sequences. Until you get to the fantastic recreation of his famous 1973 Mahler Resurrection Symphony in a legendary performance at Ely Cathedral, England, some famous scores from productions like West Side Story are in the background. For such a man who lived through his need for creative expression standing the test of time, it’s an odd choice — especially if you’re expecting some conventionality regarding this biopic. Cooper tries to subvert expectations in the story he’s seeking to tell. When Maestro uses the music to accentuate the themes of self-repression and triumph outside of that, it’s effective.

Maestro. Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

In the black and white portion of the film, Leonard and Felicia go on a fantasy date with a stage production, including parts of “Fancy-Free” and “On the Town.” Bernstein becomes a part of the ballet, and towards the end, he and Felicia have to sift their way back to one another. It foreshadows the abrupt ways this union has a stress test, particularly when Leonard has an open affair with a younger man named Tommy (Gideon Glick). Everything is rosy in the 1940s-50s, but once Maestro shifts to its 60s-70s period, the color brings about real pain and strife. Maestro shifts its point of view to Felicia, who is shown watching Leonard from a spectator’s standpoint numerous times during his musical heights.

Despite that, the enamor of being in his orbit starts to wear off as her need to be fully embraced begins to take over. Mulligan’s portrayal of a woman who has done so much to keep things together while repressing what she wants most is captivating and heartbreaking. This also considers Maestro’s parts when she confronts Leonard about his transgressions and the third act when Montealegre battles lung cancer. Cooper’s extensive research into Bernstein’s life shows in his depiction and, at times, is highly turned up. It’s the conducting moments and the quiet conversations where the larger-than-life ethos falls away, and Cooper’s portrayal shines.

The opening minutes chronicle Bernstein as an older man, stating he misses Felicia terribly after her death and perhaps seeing her ghost on the top of the stars. It sets the tone for an account where their union is the main north star — where everything else circles it and waits its turn. “For better or for worse/till death do us part.” It speaks to the Bernstein marriage and Leonard’s fight for his creativity not to be pigeonholed. Maestro doesn’t adhere to any solid structure like the subject it depicts, but the heart of it all is a universal truth.