Netflix must be doing something right. Killing its own movies’ theatrical prospects prior to streaming, however, isn’t it. It’s stupid, certainly in the case of “Maestro,” the new film from director, co-writer, producer and star Bradley Cooper.

The film is now in limited theatrical release, with the Netflix streaming premiere arriving Dec. 20.

For a movie made with full, scrutinizing consent of the Leonard Bernstein estate and surviving family members, “Maestro” is considerably more interesting, nuanced and engaging than the usual squaresville biopic. Millions crave Bernstein’s music, and it’s all over the movie, often to striking effect. Bernstein’s legacy remains huge and vital, thanks (for starters) to “On the Town,” “Candide” (the overture alone, taken at the preferable tempo, in the key of wheeee!, is reason enough to rejoice) and “West Side Story.”

Bernstein, known to his friends as Lenny, raced through the time he had. His eternally debated standing as the first 20th-century American superstar conductor, his restless bisexual affairs, his marriages and children … we could go on, and certainly Bernstein did, until his death at 72 in 1990. Any and all parts of his tumult of a life make for juicy cinematic exploration.

Cooper’s second feature as director, following the hit 2018 remake of “A Star is Born,” focuses on Bernstein’s second marriage, in 1951, to actress Felicia Montealegre, played by top-billed Carey Mulligan. After a prologue, Cooper’s screenplay, written with Josh Singer (”Spotlight,” “First Man”), begins in 1943, in a bed. Bernstein, then 25, is assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and itching for more. He gets a phone call: Guest conductor Bruno Walter has the flu and can’t make it. The Carnegie Hall concert must go on, that night. Bernstein takes over, no rehearsal, huge success. The man in Bernstein’s bed at the time is one of many affairs to come.

“Maestro” darts and hops around, bracingly; it’s a little like flipping through a big, stylish scrapbook, more or less but not strictly in chronological order. Bernstein’s first date with the Costa Rican-Chilean Montealegre, a recent New York arrival, is scored to the 1944 Bernstein “Fancy Free” ballet music, the direct inspiration for the Broadway musical “On the Town.” It’s a whirlwind passage on screen, halfway to a musical-theater dream ballet (at one point Cooper as Bernstein becomes one of the three sailors on leave). Early scenes from their lives together, and apart, are shot in black and white; scenes later in the chronology appear in color.

From the start Felicia knew about Lenny’s affairs, and tried to make her peace with them. She also knew she’d be living a life surrounded by acolytes worshipping at what she called “the L.B. altar.” Though Mulligan’s top-billed, the film doesn’t quite justify that; as with Cooper’s “Star is Born,” Cooper as director has a penchant for gently big-footing a final cut out from under his female co-star.

Much of the later parts of “Maestro” deal with Felicia’s cancer and her death at 56, as well as with Bernstein’s compartmentalized lives, at last consumed by the crisis unfolding. Here, “Maestro” rightly slows its tempo. Rather than playing that part of her story as a prolonged exit, Mulligan, who is superb throughout, takes each moment as it comes, and the result is an unusually truthful (as far as I know) depiction of this woman’s painful, complicated farewell.

Earlier in the film, a similarly gripping key sequence focuses on a long-delayed burst of emotion in a sustained single-take argument in the Bernstein’s New York apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It doesn’t looks, feel, act or build like a movie argument; it feels like life, and it’s bracingly well-acted by Mulligan and Cooper. The sight of a huge inflated Snoopy balloon floating by outside the window — it’s Thanksgiving Day — is the perfect ironic complement.

Not everything in the film works on that level. There are times when Cooper’s vocal and physical details as Bernstein at various stages in his life, from his 20s to his early 70s, come off as meticulous mimicry rather than an impression (not the Rich Little kind) of the man. That, plus the extensive and high-grade prosthetics, add up to a lot, though I’m with the Anti-Defamation League’s favorable assessment of Cooper’s controversial Bernstein nose. (The earliest photos of Cooper in costume and makeup did the prosthetics no favors.) Wildly talented in many directions, Cooper still has a few things to learn as a performer about the art and value of processing years of research with a little more selectivity.

The supporting players don’t get much screen time, but they’re excellent: Sarah Silverman as Bernstein’s seen-it-all sister, Shirley, for example, or Matt Bomer as musician David Oppenheim, one of Bernstein’s lovers. The celebrity couple at the heart of “Maestro” was what they used to call “a New York marriage,” at a time when out-and-proud homosexual lives were lived at extreme risk. The movie is discreet, perhaps to a fault, but Cooper captures the seductive hunger and the flamboyance of his subject, who dashed through his years as if guided by the line from “Sweet Smell of Success,” spoken by Tony Curtis: “In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.”

Part of “Maestro” stylize the action set to music, akin to the way the undervalued Elton John biopic “Rocket Man” literally levitated its star on the rise in his Los Angeles debut. The peaks of Cooper’s sophomore feature run on the rocket fuel of Bernstein’s particular musical drive. According to daughter Jamie Bernstein’s memoir, Felicia sacrificed a lot — everything, really. The movie doesn’t go that far; even if “Maestro” would’ve been stronger had it concerned itself more with Felicia, that’s not the movie Cooper made. But it doesn’t duck the messy, unresolved contradictions, the way so many movies about famous artists do.

There’s a lot to argue about here, in other words. And “Maestro” is movie enough to have deserved an actual theatrical run prior to the Netflix streaming morass.



3 stars (out of 4) 

MPA rating: R (for some language and drug use)

Running time: 2:09

How to watch: Now in theaters and streaming on Netflix Dec. 20


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