Nearly three years ago I began reading things about a Leonard Bernstein biopic, possibly to be produced by and star Jake Gyllenhaal. For reasons that passeth understanding, as I was in no way a fan of his work, being musically illiterate, the idea intrigued me. On one of my meanders through Amazon I ordered a couple of biographies on Bernstein and began an undirected quest through the biographies of many of the major cultural figures of the mid-twentieth century. Following the Berstein era, I read about Jerome Robbins. I read everything written about Arthur Laurents, and the several volumes of rebuttal that Laurents penned at the end of his life. The on to Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Lillian Hellman…
It's been a whole thing. The information on Bernstein further also prompted an exploration of classical music that got me through the Covid lockdown and after several years of exploration, I can say with complete confidence that I know absolutely nothing about classical music. I appreciate a lot of it and am sometimes moved by it. But I’m in no way educated.
As the Bernstein biopic made its way through the wilds of Hollywood, Jake was unable to secure the rights to the story, losing out to Bradley Cooper. Bradley Cooper’s body of work fascinates me. As a collection, it is best described as earnest and self-conscious. Based on my reading, in many ways Cooper is an excellent choice to bring Bernstein to life on screen. There seem to be similarities between the two men.
I’ve been waiting for this movie.
And tonight, I saw it.
Thank God I’d read the biographies. As I watched the movie, I wondered if anyone who hadn’t would ever be able to understand what was going on. I've ready two Bernstein biographies, and another dozen in which Bernstein figures prominently in major sections, and I could still barely make heads or tails on what was going on.
Stylistically, it’s an exquisite film to watch. Every shot is painstakingly composed and flawlessly executed. The performances, including Cooper’s, are riveting. Carey Mulligan (who Cooper gives top billing) is sure to win every acting nomination available in the Norther Hemisphere. The film drips with Oscar potential. Begs for your consideration. Thirsts for it, as the kids used to say. As a film with Leonard Bernstein as the subject, the structure is appropriately unexpected if not entirely fresh. Effortless it certainly is not, despite the feeling of many of the scenes being improvised with trivial, if not banal dialogue. Mise en scene over narrative is the dominant order of the day for the first two thirds of the film. The third act is not only scripted, it's downright baroque in its heady discussions of ART! that grind the pace from glacial to almost inert.
The focus is on Berstein’s relationship with his wife, barely acknowledging the magnitude of Bernstein’s talent and accomplishments. He single handedly brought classical music to the middle classes, much in the way Top Chef turned America into a tribe of foodies. For someone with at least a passing knowledge of Bernstein’s work, this is a satisfying approach. But beyond West Side Story (if even that) how much does the movie-going public of today know about Leonard Bernstein? Without knowledge of his cultural significance, we’re left with the story of a complicated man and the woman who loves him. No matter how stylized the work, the first order of business for such a story is to give the audience something to care about. We have to be rooting for someone or something. The disjointed style – true to the style of Bernstein’s composition – doesn’t really create a compelling story for an audience not familiar with Bernstein’s genius. We'll accept a lot of pretentions if we don't feel like we're being patronized. It’s as if Cooper is trying so hard not to deliver a Hallmark biopic, that he forgets a movie must first be entertaining.
As Bernstein, Cooper delivers a well-crafted, if somewhat uneven performance. The voice work is inconsistent, with a dialect drifting in and out. However, the physicality of the performance is flawless. Sadly, the key ingredient that would have made this film work is the innate charm Leonard Bernstein had. He was legendary for charming everyone he met. Not everyone ended up loving him, but nearly everyone started out that way. Cooper tries, but he comes across as cold. Leonard Bernstein in life was not cold. Leonard Bernstein in the script takes every opportunity to tell us how much he loves people. Almost nobody says they love the Leonard Bernstein on the screen. Cooper gives us no reason to.
Having said all that, I will be taking a second – and possibly a third – look at the film. There are many virtues in a Bradley Cooper film. For me, chief among them is the opportunity to learn something. That’s why I’m a Bradley Cooper fan. I get something new out of every viewing.