Maestro— The Troubled Life of Leonard Bernstein

Maestro— The Troubled Life of Leonard Bernstein January 2, 2024

Having spent my early years in high school and beyond playing in a symphony, and having watched with fascination Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concert Program week after week when I was young, of course I badly wanted to see the biopic on Bernstein which has been years in the making for Bradley Cooper, who both produced and starred, along with Carey Mulligan, in this 2 plus hour film.

Ben Witherington

The film is half in black and white, and half in color, but then Bernstein’s life stretched both from the era of black and white TV and film into color TV and film.   I would draw your attention to the interview with Cooper and Bernstein’s children and sister above.  Bernstein was bi-sexual.   He loved men before he fell in love with Felicia, his wife. And yes, he really did love her and his kids.  But he lived a deeply conflicted life, and Felicia paid a heavy price for marrying him.  No question about it.

Now as the film shows, Bernstein was a world class conductor and teacher. He is one of the persons who taught me to love and cherish classical music. I still do.  He was also an excellent composer of contemporary Broadway type music— think On the Town, West Side Story, Candide. What he was not, oddly enough, was a great classical composer, like his hero Mahler, and the scene of him conducting the Mahler 2nd Symphony at Ely Cathedral with the London Symphony Orchestra was a highlight of the film.  It really happened in 1973 with the real Bernstein conducting and his wife watching from the wings, and it was really recreated there a couple of years ago with Cooper and the London Philharmonic.  I can tell you this from experience– there is no musical experience like being part of a good symphony orchestra with 120 or more people all working together in harmony to create a musical masterpiece, each one striving to do their best, and responding to the promptings and directing of the conductor.  It is a parable of humanity at its finest, working together to create something beautiful, lasting, moving, memorable.  I could have wished for much more in the movie about Bernstein and his music and conducting.

Alas, the film is mainly about Bernstein’s life with his wife and family, and the problems his sexual behavior brought to them all, including telling a lie to his daughter about his affairs with men.    Felicia died of cancer in 1978, and Bernstein in 1990, both in part because of being heavy smokers.  In fact, there is hardly a scene in this film where Bernstein is not chain smoking, and his wife as well.

This is an excellent film, and no doubt already deserves some of plaudits and nominations it is getting.  But it is also a sad, even tragic tale of yet another musician whose life could be sordid, while his music could be splendid.

Browse Our Archives