In an early highlight of the film, we follow Bernstein as he gets out of bed and waltzs around Carnegie Hall the day he gets the phone call that kickstarts his career. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique creates a masterful tracking shot of Bernstein that heads from Bernstein’s bedside to the stage itself as if it were just in his living room, showing how close the conductor was to his work.
Proving that Cooper should just go ahead and direct a musical, there is also a spectacular musical number once Bernstein falls for actress Felicia Montealegre, which shows an early version of Bernstein’s sailor ballet “Fancy Free” (which would eventually become “On the Town”) that shows Cooper’s ability to weave sound with great performances. Once the film jumps forward to the ’50s and ’60s, the old Hollywood aesthetic is replaced with bright colors while keeping the square aspect ratio that is juxtaposed with the more chaotic moments in the conductor’s life with great effect. A scene of an older Bernstein leading a massive orchestra inside a cathedral, his joy upon feeling the impact of his work while knowing his private life is falling apart, is particularly effective.
Because the film is more about the Bernsteins than it is about the music, the struggle of Leonard’s homosexuality and multiple affairs taking a toll on his marriage while his music constantly pulls him apart serving as the emotional crux of the film. Cooper is fantastic at recreating Bernstein’s mannerisms and speech, but after a while, it feels like a copy rather than an interpretation. Sure, part of the film is that Bernstein led such a constructed public life that few truly knew him, but “Maestro” doesn’t communicate that very well through Cooper’s performance.