Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Maestro: Cigarettes and Love, Lenny-Style

Leonard Bernstein was an integral part of my childhood, and maybe yours too. From 1958  to 1972, he was on television with the New York Philharmonic, explaining to kids in a compelling way the joys of classical music. Then there were the musicals he composed that set our toes a-tapping: On the Town, West Side Story, Candide. I discovered the lively film version of On the Town (about three sailors on shore leave in New York City at the height of World War II) long after its release in 1949.  When West Side Story came out on film in 1961, it was seen by everyone I know, and long afterward the infectious score was still buzzing around in our heads. Though the much more recent Spielberg version of West Side Story may have its virtues, no one can rob us Baby Boomers of our affection for the original.

 But it’s only now that Bernstein himself is on film, not as a composer but as the leading man of a biopic. Bradley Cooper, inspired by the memoir by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, had long wanted to put his complicated life on film. Ultimately, Cooper was to be a triple (at least) threat: as co-writer, director, and star of this labor of love. Much has been made of the prosthetic nose used to transform him visually from Bradley into Lenny. At the theatre where I saw this film (soon to show up on Netflix), photos of the real Bernstein in various stages of life reveal just how close the makeup artists got in transforming a Philadelphia gentile into a New York Jew.

 Far more important than Cooper’s look, however, is the spirit he brings to this role. His Lenny is smart, funny, impetuous, wildly sociable, nicotine-addicted, and wholly dedicated to his role on the music scene. He’s also far more attracted to men than to women, a distinction the film makes early on in showing a life-changing moment. He’s roused from sleep in the early morning hours by a phone call telling him that the great Bruno Walter, slated to be a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is down with the flu. As the orchestra’s assistant conductor, the 26-year-old Lenny needs to pick up the baton—without rehearsal. He makes the appropriate sounds of regret, hangs up the phone . . . and indulges in a triumphant yell of which Tarzan would be proud. Then, jumping into a bathrobe, he affectionately pats the behind of the young man who had been sharing his bed, and heads for Carnegie Hall. In one of the film’s many surreal moments, he arrives in that grand space, still in his bathrobe, ready to take on the world.

 But Maestro is not solely about Lenny. The film’s focus is his marriage to Felicia Montealegre, played by the always luminous Carey Mulligan. From the start, Felicia knows her husband’s sexual predilections, but is at first willing to overlook them for the sake of home and family. Ultimately the tensions within the home threaten to destroy it (in a scene cleverly staged as the gigantic balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade pass by the Bernsteins’ Central Park West window). Still, the genuine love between these two talented and complicated people is what the film is all about. This nicely fits the genuine Bernstein quote that opens the film: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." Quite so.

 See this in a theatre, if you can, to revel in the Bernstein score.



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