Bradley Cooper’s highly anticipated musical biopic Maestro screened as the closing night film of AFI Fest 2023 at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood to a captivated and moved audience.
Cooper again tackles both directing and acting duties following the critical success of his directing debut feature, A Star is Born. Maestro chronicles the lifelong relationship between revered composer, conductor, and educator Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and Broadway star Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan) across almost fifty years. The film had its world premiere at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Lion.
Due to the actors’ strike, Cooper and Mulligan could not attend the screening. Fortunately, Bernstein’s real-life daughter Jamie Bernstein was present to introduce the film and gave a special nod to Cooper’s devotion to telling the story of her family.
“Bradley manifests the very same qualities that our dad himself brought to everything. The dedication, the laser-like focus, and an all-embracing open-heartedness,” explained Bernstein. “Bradley created this Lenny-esque environment from the beginning, allowing all the artists involved in the making of the film to bring that same spirit to their own work.”
Maestro explores the pleasures and challenges of fame and gives a vivid portrait of an embattled marriage that’s distinguished and interweaved with respective professional successes. The film strays from common biopic themes of following chronological milestones, instead opting for a mosaic of beautiful imagery that underscores the connection between Leonard and Felicia, as captured by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. A mid-film orchestral performance lifted audiences at the screening to enthusiastic applause.
Following the screening, All Quiet on the Western Front director Edward Berger moderated a Q&A with creatives from the film, including Richard King (Sound Designer), Jamie Bernstein (Daughter), Josh Singer (Writer), Kevin Thompson (Production Designer), Michelle Tesoro (Editor), Mark Bridges (Costume Designer), Kazu Hiro (Prosthetic Makeup Designer), and Steve Morrow (Sounds Mixer). Co-writer Singer revealed that the film did not always focus on the marriage between Leonard and Felicia during its 15-year path to the screen.
“In my early drafts, I really struggled to find the exact right spine,” shared Singer. “Bradley signed on about five years ago, and he immediately was taken with the marriage. He decided that this should be unlike normal biopics, that we shouldn’t stick to the A, B, C of things that happen, but that the lens should be the marriage, which I thought was fascinating.”
As the film moves through the years of Leonard’s and Felicia’s life, so does the visual storytelling as it moves from early years shot in black-and-white to a transcendental one-shot performance in the National Cathedral. Editor Michelle Tesoro explained that she was able to work with Cooper on the collage of stories through Bernstein’s life early in the filmmaking process.
“I was aware of the story’s direction, and the spine was the love story of the marriage. It was very clear. So once the footage got to me, it had already been processed through Bradley’s mind,” said Tesoro. “When he shoots, he edits, so really, when we’re together, we’re thinking about the rhythm of the whole movie.”
Cooper’s and Mulligan’s resemblance to their real-life counterparts is seamlessly told through aging makeup throughout the film, and Prosthetic Makeup Designer Kazu Hiro ensured that layers of prosthetics didn’t hinder their performances.
“We wanted to create Lenny authentically, and he had to go through five different stages of life from 25 to 71. We also had to consider how comfortable Bradley would be and how I could cut down on the application time,” explained Hiro. “When you talk about likeness, you have to find a good balance because if we put on too many prosthetics on, it will be difficult for the actor to move or express emotion.”
The film is illuminating in its private details of Leonard’s life. Jamie Bernstein reiterated the support her family gave to the production and gave praise to Cooper, who ensured they remained a part of the process from script to screen.
“Bradley made a very compelling pitch. Suddenly, there was this very dynamic person who had this huge enthusiasm about making the film,” shared Bernstein. “When he decided to change the nature of the project and make it a story about our parents, a portrait of a marriage, it was so amazing and compelling to us. He regularly checked in with us to ask questions and invited us to look at footage. It made us feel like we were along for the ride.”