Tag Archives: Leonard Bernstein

Music of Your Life


by George Wolf

This time of year, we normally hear the term “Oscar bait” as a bad thing.

It might be the worst thing you can say about Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a film that is grand and showy, meticulously assembled and clearly proud of the vision it brings to the screen.

And it should be proud, as Oscar and other well-earned award considerations will no doubt start piling up soon.

Cooper recently detailed his years of study as a conductor, as part of the preparation to write, direct and star in this Leonard Bernstein biopic. That type of well-timed admission may evoke some eye rolling, but the onscreen results of his commitment are pretty damn hard to deny.

From the opening sequence, Cooper’s camera sings with fluidity, teaming with Matthew Libatique’s exquisite cinematography and the maestro’s own rapturous music for thrilling evocations of creativity and joy, longing and heartache. Aspect ratios and color palettes change as Bernstein’s legend grows, while Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer (First Man, The Post, Oscar winner for Spotlight) ground it all in the endlessly compelling relationship between Leonard and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre Bernstein (Carey Mulligan).

Interviews with Leonard organically fill in the necessary career details, while the moving and nuanced performances from Cooper and Mulligan draw us into the complexities of the marriage. Cooper’s “Lenny” – buoyed by amazing age effects from the makeup department – is a force of nature, overflowing with musical genius, charm and ego, capable of both effervescent affection and a coldness that could reduce others to a life “surviving on what he could give.”

But as much as this movie is about the titular Maestro, a glorious Mulligan picks up the baton and walks off with it.

Felicia becomes our window into this mesmerizing world, and we feel her waves of love and sorrow as Leonard’s life as a closeted gay man chips away at her early declarations of guiltless freedom. It is Leonard’s emotional distance that hurts the most, and Mulligan conveys the daggers with heartbreaking grace.

Say what you will about Cooper’s apparent campaigning, but his generosity as both an actor and a director is never in doubt, and his film is better for it. Cooper’s instincts for construction have also grown exponentially since A Star Is Born (his stellar directing debut). Frame after frame is a wonder of style and storytelling, including an unforgettable extended take of simmering intensity and visual contrast that rivals the emotional wallop of Marriage Story‘s famous soul-baring confrontation.

While several layers of polish are indeed evident, Maestro is a film that soars early and often, via moments of glamorous cinematic muscle-flexing and intimate soul searching. It is as much about a great artist as it about the sacrifices great art often demands from both the artist and those who are closest to them. It’s a celebration of a legend and of a legendary bond, a sublime piece of moviemaking that deserves a standing O.

New York City Serenade

West Side Story

by George Wolf

This week on Twitter, director Edgar Wright reminded anyone doubting Steven Spielberg’s way around a musical number to revisit “Anything Goes” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Okay, point taken, but West Side Story? That’s a big step up.

It is, and he makes it in stride.

Right from the opening minutes, Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. Their threats of violence are more palpable this time, as Riff (Mike Faist, an award-worthy standout) and his New York boys want to settle their turf war with Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Puerto Ricans once and for all.

At the dance that night, the first meeting between tragic lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler, a newcomer with an amazing voice who beat out thousands in open auditions) now happens under the gym bleachers, the first in a series of subtle and not-so-subtle updates that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, Angels in America) employ to deepen the narrative impact.

“Dear Officer Krupke” seems more organic in the station house, “America” (led by an irresistible Ariana DeBose as Anita) is given more room to move across the west side city streets, while a department store full of mannequins depicting white suburban dreams proves an ironically joyful setting for Maria and her co-workers’ buoyant reading of “I Feel Pretty.”

And from one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothy precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow. Stellar efforts from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Adam Stockhausen turn the everyday drab of hanging laundry and fabric remnants into an elegant playground for Spielberg’s camera eye.

In short, it looks freaking fantastic.

It sounds pretty great, too, even beyond the genius of Bernstein’s melodies and Sondheim’s lyrics. Because Spielberg couples his appropriate and welcome diversity of cast with a complete lack of subtitles, rightly putting the opposing cultures on equal narrative footing, and bringing more depth to the cries of “speak English!”

And as the gang fight turns deadly, all of the stakes are embraced more tightly. The offhand bigotry of Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll, terrific as always) is more casually cruel, the identity conflict of Anybodys (Iris Menas) feels more defined, while Anita’s fateful visit to Doc’s store – now run by Valentina (expect another Oscar nod for the incredible Rita Moreno) – plainly calls it like it always was.

Then, as his (almost) parting shot, Spielberg unveils his grandest revision, a move nearly as bold and risky as the one Richard Attenborough face-planted with in 1985’s A Chorus Line.

By altering the context of one of the most emotional songs, Attenborough showed he didn’t know, or didn’t care, about what the show was trying to say. Spielberg, though, gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.