As the overture to Candide blazed away during the ovation for Maestro at the Venice Film Festival, three members of the audience flung their arms around in an imitation of Leonard Bernstein’s conducting style. They were his children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, and their reaction said it all. Bradley Cooper, the film’s star and director, had pulled off a piece of cinematic chutzpah worthy of Lenny himself. His secret? The last quality you associate with the most embarrassingly flamboyant genius in American musical history: understatement.
It’s easy to imagine the ghastly three-hour biopic Cooper didn’t make. West Side Story goes from near-catastrophe to wild triumph. Children all over America are goggle-eyed with delight as Bernstein unveils the treasures of the classical repertoire. Lenny and Felicia throw that notorious ‘radical chic’ cocktail party for the Black Panthers, deliciously mocked by Tom Wolfe, with male actors in those hilarious long-haired wigs that Hollywood plonks on their heads to show that the 1970s have arrived. Mahler’s scores are milked ad nauseam as Bernstein’s hysteria dissolves into puddles of self-pity. He realises he’s never going to be acclaimed as a great composer – and, yikes, his looks are fading. And it could finish with that last concert at Tanglewood, a cancer-stricken Lenny almost dying on the podium – wouldn’t ‘Der Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde be perfect?
Thank god we’re spared. Thewhirling camera catches some of those moments, but only when they’re relevant to its subject matter, which is not the career of Leonard Bernstein but his marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre. Carey Mulligan shows flickers of pain at her husband’s gay philandering – but it’s mostly showing, not telling, because that’s how Maestro is choreographed.
Consider the dazzling five minutes that begin with a young Lenny and Felicia lunching on a sun-drenched terrace with Serge Koussevitzky, revered conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.