Maestro: A Showcase of Ethnic Cosplay in Leonard Bernstein Biopic

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in a first look image from Maestro. Courtesy of Netflix.

The troubles for Maestro started not with the first images of ethnic cosplay but as soon as Bradley Cooper won over Jake Gyllenhaal.

I wish I could take credit for coining “ethnic cosplay” as a term but no, I can’t. It was used by a colleague after the release of first-look images in 2022. In my opinion, the remarks still hold up today. The push for authentic representation in Hollywood somehow does not include Jews. Jake Gyllenhaal was very open about the Bernstein film being his passion project. The Bernstein family still awarded the music rights to Cooper. No amount of Cooper’s training will change the fact that this film is a showcase for hair and makeup rather than the acting performances themselves. Much like Armageddon Time last year, there is a scene in the film discussing antisemitism. It would have been more powerful by casting with authentic representation especially with levels of Jew-hatred being as high as the 1930s. I cannot stress this enough.

The conversation takes place on the dining terrace in a scene involving Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper), Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan), Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov), Olga Koussevitzky (Julia Aku), and Aaron Copland (Brian Klugman). During this scene, Serge suggests changing his name to to Burns because “they will never given an 0rchesra” to a Bernstein. Bernstein had no intention to change his name. To which the Russian-born Serge responds: “I used to entertain people on the train going back and forth to Moscow, and upon every arrival, I had to return straight away because, of course, as Jews, we weren’t allowed to live there…I never saw the city, not once. But I got to play.” Koussevitzky and his second wife relocated to the US in 1924 to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra and became US citizens in 1941.

As far as pacing for the two-hour-plus film goes: twenty minutes into the film is when I started looking at my watch. The fact that I continued to look at my watch every few minutes throughout the run time is never a good sign. It could very well be possible that the film being among my least anticipated films of the year was a factor in this but I don’t know. A really good movie would not have me looking at my watch this much!

As far as the film itself, the film focuses on the relationship between Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. The casting of Cooper more problematic than Mulligan. Cohn Bernstein’s paternal grandfather was Jewish and the actress converted upon marrying Bernstein. You would not know this from watching the film because it happens off-camera. Hell, you wouldn’t even know Bernstein was Jewish except for scenes about Russian antisemitism and telling him to change his name to Burns. According to the film’s press notes, Cohn Bernstein’s mother was Costa Rican with European ancestry. Her paternal grandfather was Jewish. The family would later move to Chile because of her father’s job. But back to Bernstein, authentic representation includes everyone except Jews. The same goes for DEI these days but that’s another story.

Leonard Bernstein is a figure that is deserving of a biopic. There’s no denying this. My first thought going into the film should be Bernstein’s music, not Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose. And yet, this is where we are. Cooper grew up a Bernstein fan and pretended to conduct an orchestra. I have nothing against him wanting to direct or co-write the film in question. No, my problem is with his casting of himself in an ethnic cosplay performance. At one point, Steven Spielberg was thinking of directing the film. This film would still have a casting controversy regardless of director. Not even The Fabelmans was able to escape criticism from casting.

Beyond the casting issues, Cooper and Josh Singer’s script commits the biopic sin of spreading the film out over way too many years. I suppose it could be worse. There is not a performance of Bernstein conducting and the text postscript appearing on screen. We don’t get any of that. Instead, it’s a clip of the actual Bernstein conducting music. When it comes to musical biopics, Walk Hard remains the gold standard. A narrow focus will always be better than spreading out the timeline. Regardless, there are many times where the film struggles with the story it is trying to tell.

All the criticism not withstanding, the film does have at least one standout set piece. This is the recreation of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony. Maybe the film will get people to look into the original performance?

There is a universe where Jake Gyllenhaal is starring as Leonard Bernstein in The American rather than Bradley Cooper in Maestro and I wish we could see that film. If the past several weeks since October 7 have shown us anything, it’s that Jews are a people–an ethnoreligious people–and it’s about damn time that Hollywood starts doing its due diligence when it comes authentic representation on screen.

DIRECTOR: Bradley Cooper
SCREENWRITERS: Bradley Cooper & Josh Singer
CAST: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman, Josh Hamilton, Scott Ellis, Gideon Glick, Sam Nivola, Alexa Swinton, Miriam Shor

Netflix released Maestro in theaters on November 22, 2023 and will stream globally starting on December 20, 2023. Grade: 2.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.