A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

Get daily updates delivered right to your inbox

Leonard Bernstein biopic details conductor’s dual loves: his wife and his music

Jason McDonald/Netflix
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, in ‘Maestro.’

The “Maestro” in the highly anticipated new biopic of that name is Leonard Bernstein, the groundbreaking Jewish-American composer and conductor who became the first American conductor to lead a major American orchestra, as well as being an innovator, music educator, humanitarian and pop culture figure. 

Bradley Cooper directed, co-wrote and stars as Bernstein in a film that covers his storied career but focuses more on his personal life, especially his long relationship with his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan). Much of the film centers on their romance, marriage and family life raising three children, and her painful struggles with the composer/conductor’s numerous affairs with men.

Cooper worked closely with the Bernsteins’ three children for this project, and also worked with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin to capture Bernstein’s conducting style.

There has been a lot of chatter about Cooper’s makeup choices to play Bernstein, particularly a prosthetic nose, but it is worth noting that Bernstein’s children are fine with that bit of makeup. The prosthetic does help make Cooper, who doesn’t particularly look like Bernstein, more convincingly play the much-photographed musical genius.

“Maestro” is visually gorgeous, with marvelous sets and period costumes. It starts out in black-and-white, with the 25-year-old Bernstein’s breakthrough debut as a conductor and then meeting his future wife, echoing the appearance of films of the era. The film switches mid-way to lush color as we reach the 1960s, and another breakthrough for Bernstein, with the score for “West Side Story” making him a pop culture figure as well as a classical music giant.

The film opens with a joyous scene, as 25-year-old Lenny (as his family often called him) is on the brink of fame. The young assistant conductor gets the call to fill in for a guest conductor, who is ill, and leads the New York Philharmonic. The concert, which is broadcast, is Bernstein’s conducting debut and earns a rousing response from the audience and critical praise, catapulting him to fame.


With his music star now rising, Lenny meets Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan), a Costa Rican-Chilean Jewish actress who was already a Broadway star. The two embark on an intense romance, charmingly portrayed, and eventually marry.

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in “Maestro.” ((Netflix))

Sarah Silverman plays Bernstein’s understanding sister Shirley while Brian Klugman plays composer Aaron Copland, one of Bernstein’s closest friends. Later in the film, Maya Hawke plays the Bernsteins’ eldest daughter Jamie.

Although the drama starts with Bernstein as an adult, dialogue and scenes reference his earlier life. Born near Boston as the son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, he didn’t grow up in a musical family. When Lenny was 10, he got his first chance to play a piano, when his Aunt Clara temporarily needed to store hers at his family’s apartment. He fell in love with the instrument, and when his businessman father refused to pay for lessons, not seeing music as a serious career, Lenny scraped up the money himself. Eventually, his father bought a piano after Lenny showed impressive natural talent.

The major focus of “Maestro” is Bernstein’s adult personal and family life, with the various highlights of his career presented more as background. The film doesn’t really emphasize the significance of some events and leaves many others out entirely, so it helps a bit if you already know something Bernstein’s career. Bernstein was a groundbreaker in getting classical music on TV and his famous young people’s concerts opened up classical music to many. While both are mentioned, their groundbreaking nature isn’t underlined, and much of his mentorship and Civil Rights work are left out. 

Still “Maestro” is a moving film with an impressive cinematic style and strong performances, and it does convey of sense of what a pop culture star Bernstein was as well as a serious music one. 

One of the great joys of this film is the music. We hear musical tidbits from “West Side Story,” of course, but there also are samplings of other popular works, along with the classics, and his crazy, wonderful overture to “Candide” plays over the end credits.

Perhaps the biggest highlight is the Ely Cathedral concert, where Cooper as Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and a large choir in a stirring recreation performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The scene was shot with the actual London Symphony Orchestra, recreating the whole performance on location, with Cooper actually conducting, a scene he prepared for several years. 

Cooper does a fine job as Bernstein, not just in the dramatic parts but in his impersonation of the conductor at work, capturing the maestro’s movements and energy brilliantly. Mulligan also is excellent as a Broadway star who maintained her own career but whose personal life was marred by her husband’s many affairs with men. Mulligan movingly conveys her emotional pain and struggles in a fine, nuanced performance. 

“Maestro” is a beautifully made film, filled with wonderful music, about America’s first star conductor, who crossed over into pop culture fame as well, but the biopic is more about Bernstein’s personal life and marriage than some viewers might expect. 

“Maestro” opens Friday, Dec. 8, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and Chase Cinema, and will be available for streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20.

| RELATED: ADL to TMZ: Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein nose in ‘Maestro’ is not antisemitic

More to Discover