At several points during my viewing of this film, one question kept nagging at me: Who is the target audience?
To answer that query, it is necessary to understand the content of this movie. Ticking all the boxes, Bradley Cooper’s latest opus is clearly a labor of love and an extraordinary piece of cinema. With terrific performances, an intelligent script, fabulous cinematography, and of course, great music throughout, the film provides almost everything we could ask for, but only if we recognize that this is not a straightforward biography.
In my opinion, that sort of biography would be impossible. There were just too many dimensions to the man and his music. The writers wisely settled on portraying the one facet of his life that is not so well known to the public: his relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre. In Carey Mulligan, the production team found the ideal actress to portray her. If the film had been made in earlier times, the closest I could imagine is Ingrid Bergman in the role.
But getting back to the question of the intended viewing public, if the producers had committed to telling the whole story of this tortured man and his life, the film would have been at least four hours long and probably still would have omitted several key points. We are forty years past the time when he dominated the American musical scene as no other had done before. To attract a younger audience, the film focused less on the music and more on the love story that unfolds.
To some degree, musicians who might expect to see insights into various aspects of Bernstein’s artistic process will be disappointed. In fact, with the notable exception of the final six minutes of Mahler’s Second Symphony, we do not really get much podium time from the director/actor.
Nevertheless, when he is leading members of the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus, Cooper does a tremendous job. His facial expression and mannerisms are very much in the Bernstein mold. Most of the time, it is clear what he is conducting. But every person is built differently. Not only did Cooper have to spend six years learning how to lead an orchestra, but he also had to take on the physical manifestations of the title character, which in some spots, means that he is really limited because he simply cannot duplicate several of the Bernstein gestures. Near the end of the Mahler, it is difficult to figure out how many beats he is giving from measure to measure. But whatever he did, it worked. The musicians, who know this music inside and out, undoubtedly enjoyed the learning experience and were more than willing to give their all.
Because the story is centered on the couple, we never see the dark side of Bernstein’s personality that is on display in numerous YouTube clips. Starting out young and somewhat naïve, each trying just a bit too hard to impress the other, they form a relationship based on trust, which will be broken when Felicia finally understands the duality of Lenny’s nature. After a sort of reconciliation, during which she realizes that her purpose is to support her husband no matter what, the two settle into a comfortable rapprochement, treating each other with mutual respect in public and with true care when they are alone. It is gripping theater. As Felicia’s cancer begins to take its toll, one can feel Bernstein’s anguish and guilt in almost every scene that follows.
Although they were probably inevitable, I do have a couple quibbles. The first is that while generous chunks of Lenny’s music are used effectively as background, the pieces are not identified until the closing credits. I was away from home when the film dropped on Netflix and had to view it on my iPad. At least I have a very good headset, something that is vital to capture the power of the Mahler.
Even for some Bernstein aficionados, a few selections may not be all that familiar. For example, Facsimile is rarely played. Likewise, the film includes two moments from A Quiet Place, a work that is almost never heard. But if you turn on the subtitle feature— and you should because there are moments when the dialogue is quite soft and might be difficult to make out—you will see the names of the selections as they occur in the film.
Time is the other difficulty for me. Whereas most films might give you a date, or at least a month and year, to help contextualize a scene, this one does not. You can figure out a few reference points, and the rather effective trick of showing the first third of the film in black and white, the next section in cinematic mode, and the finale in widescreen helps.
There are a lot of characters who populate the various party scenes and discussions. I was a bit surprised that Copland was given very little to do, considering his influence on Bernstein. And several people will only be known to insiders, but that is the case in most films of this genre.
So, if you are looking for the cinematic equivalent of one of the numerous Bernstein biographies, you will be sorely disappointed. But if your tastes run to outstanding filmmaking, this is easily one of the best you will see. It certainly elevates the traditional biopic formula, with two great performances at its center.
I give it five golden batons out of five.