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Just How Accurate Is the Leonard Bernstein Movie ‘Maestro’?

With the Oscar-touted film in theaters and on Netflix, get an inside look at the real Bernstein from a Pulitzer-winning critic who knew him and his work

spinner image Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein conducting an orchestra in the Netflix film "Maestro."
Bradley Cooper directs and stars in "Maestro."
Jason McDonald/Netflix

Leonard Bernstein was 25 and virtually unknown when he burst into public consciousness on Nov. 14, 1943, in a nationally broadcast concert from Carnegie Hall. When he died in 1990, he was far and away the most famous classical musician the United States had ever produced, and there was weeping in the streets of New York City.

I watched the Bernstein film biography Maestro with more than usual interest. For those of us raised in rural surroundings, far from concert halls, watching him on TV in the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts was like a passport into another world. As a music critic and interviewer, I met the man only four or five times, but thanks to his TV appearances and his books, I can say that I studied with Leonard Bernstein — and so did most of my contemporaries.

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Maestro, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, received generally positive reviews, and pundits predict multiple Oscar nominations. But how close is it to the truth?

spinner image Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Brian Klugman as Aaron Copland sitting in front of a piano in "Maestro."
(Left to right) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Brian Klugman as Aaron Copland in "Maestro."
Jason McDonald/Netflix

What Maestro missed

The answer is very close indeed — although that answer must be qualified. There is nothing about one of his greatest legacies — the brilliantly explanatory TV programs on Omnibus and the Young People’s Concerts.

There, Bernstein spoke as convincingly about rock and jazz as he did about 19th-century Viennese orchestral works.

The movie shows us Bernstein the conductor, composer and lover, but to leave out what he called his “Lenny lectures” is a huge omission. He told me his Talmud scholar father made everything into a lesson — “Pass the salt” would elicit a lesson on Lot’s wife turning to salt. “I inherited some of that didactic quality,” Bernstein told me.

He was an intensely social creature, and the film focuses mostly on him and his wife, not the creative people surrounding him. Most of the other important cultural figures depicted in the film — choreographer Jerome Robbins, actress Judy Holliday, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose book and lyrics for On the Town brought us Bernstein’s first Broadway hit score — are present, but scarcely explained at all. You don’t really know who they were, or what they meant to him or his work.

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There is also scant emphasis on Bernstein’s left/liberal political activities, which immensely affected his reputation after Tom Wolfe satirized the Bernsteins’ fundraiser for the Black Panthers in his notorious 1970 New York magazine article “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” It’s quoted in the new Tom Wolfe documentary Radical Wolfe: “Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts,” Wolfe wrote, “and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?” But Wolfe, for all of his mocking brilliance, got many of the details wrong, which the family was still correcting many years later.

These are legitimate complaints, and no doubt another filmmaker would have made another film.

spinner image Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper sitting back-to-back on each other on the grass in a scene from the film "Maestro."
Carey Mulligan (left) stars as Felicia Montealegre.
Jason McDonald/Netflix

What Maestro got right

​Yet so much of Bernstein himself is preserved in Maestro. Begin with the beautiful and ambitious young man, out to change the world. While still a Harvard student, he had already grown close to leading composers and conductors of his time. Everybody knew Lenny: He would not have it otherwise. Yet his social climbing was so eager, so obvious, so tied up in a hungry, deeply informed and exhilarated enthusiasm that it was easy to forgive and — indeed — to love him.

​The film is particularly candid about Bernstein’s sex life, especially the complicated relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan), and children. “You are a homosexual and may never change,” Felicia wrote in a letter a few months after their marriage in 1951, with what now seems profound empathy and sophistication. “You don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do? I am willing to accept you as you are.” ​​  

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spinner image Bradley Cooper with a cigarette in his mouth sitting on a stool in front of a group of performers in the film "Maestro."
Jason McDonald/Netflix

How the maestro fell from the heights

​Felicia died from cancer in 1978. Bernstein never recovered — he was too famous, too grandiose, too drunk and distracted to carry on without the support system he’d known, even as he sought out other lives and other partners.

I remember my longest time with him — several hours at the Dakota apartment house in 1983 for an interview to commemorate his 65th birthday — and how terribly sad and trapped inside himself he seemed.

He told me that at 30, he felt immortal. “I would go on concert tours, and composed in the airport or on the plane or on the train, on the eve of a concert or whatever. I can’t do that anymore.” At 65, it was hard to switch from conducting to composing, and the results sometimes didn’t live up to his high standards. “The better you become as a conductor, the harder it is to change back into a composer. I stopped conducting the end of September ’82, and I didn’t write one note that I could even look at the next morning without a jaundiced eye until November.”

For all his brilliance and all the gratitude the world felt for him, he seemed to want nothing but to escape from the agony of being Leonard Bernstein. He smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, washed down with gin. Maestro includes footage of a cocaine party, which seems plausible given the popularity of the drug in the 1980s. On occasion, he was shockingly rude and given to maudlin public scenes. Yet he continued to conduct brilliantly up to the end and never lost his ability to inspire his students, who worshipped him — and with good reason.

A few days before he died at 72, he started to write his own eulogy, which began, “Cut down in the prime of his youth …” In a sense, he was telling the truth.

The bottom line

​Those who want an unblemished portrait of Leonard Bernstein may recoil from Maestro. To me, it captures a wildly complicated man who was torn in many different directions and never fully satisfied with any of them, despite countless rewards. Steven Spielberg was one of the film’s producers, but those expecting any sort of Lincoln-style panegyric will not find it here. Rather, Maestro seems more closely derived from Ingmar Bergman — a dreamlike, adult film about adult feelings and failings, conjured with appropriate ecstasy, intelligence and regret.

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