The greatest film score of 2023 isn’t eligible for an Academy Award. That’s because Leonard Bernstein composed it between 1944 and 1977, multiple pieces that collectively form the musical backdrop of “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s film about the 20th century American composer-conductor.
The classical excerpts functioning as dramatic score include Bernstein’s ballets “Fancy Free” and “Facsimile,” parts of his Broadway scores for “West Side Story” and “Candide,” his opera “A Quiet Place,” music for the film “On the Waterfront,” portions of his second and third symphonies as well as his “Mass” and “Chichester Psalms.”
“I think of the score as the co-star of the film,” says the composer’s oldest daughter, Jamie Bernstein. “We knew that Bradley wanted to use our dad’s music in the score, but I don’t think, in the beginning, we even grasped how much of a presence it would wind up having in the film. It really illustrates the emotional beats of the story.”
Cooper, who not only directed but also plays Bernstein in the film, made the choices. “Those are things he brought to the script in the very early writing stage,” reports executive music producer Jason Ruder. “We didn’t really entertain the idea of an original score. We just wanted to make the movie with all of Lenny’s music.”
Adds Jamie Bernstein: “Bradley took such a deep dive into our dad’s musical repertoire. He didn’t pick the obvious things at all. Some of the music was really obscure, including that beautiful postlude from Act I of ‘A Quiet Place,’ which is the first music you hear in the film. It happens to be one of my favorite pieces, and I think it’s just crushingly beautiful.”
A cue from “On the Waterfront” heralds Bernstein’s conducting debut at the New York Philharmonic; the “West Side Story” overture signals tension in the Bernstein house in Connecticut; “Facsimile,” excerpts from “On the Town” and “Anniversaries for Orchestra” underscore Bernstein’s relationship with Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) in Tanglewood, Mass. We watch him create “Fancy Free” and “Mass” at the piano.
Cooper edited his film using Bernstein’s original studio recordings. “It was beautiful with the old Lenny masters,” Ruder says, “and the movie played super-emotional.” But the decades-old recordings were deemed sonically deficient by comparison with today’s state-of-the-art theater sound systems, especially Dolby Atmos.
“We can take an old master and digitally spread things out, but it still doesn’t quite have that depth,” Ruder explains. So the decision was made to re-record the classics but “keep them very authentic to Lenny.”
Cooper had already engaged Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin as his conducting coach. (One of the film’s most talked-about sequences features Cooper conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in six minutes of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.)
The director “had a great sense of which pieces he wanted to feature,” Nézet-Séguin noted. “There were no accidental choices. I came in to discuss which part of the piece would go where, or some little tweaks, but it was his commitment to, hopefully, make people discover more about Lenny
Nézet-Séguin was drafted to go to London and re-record more than an hour of classic Bernstein for the film. Music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, he was already a longtime champion of Bernstein’s music.
“He already had a gigantic head start before he even came on board,” says Jamie Bernstein. “His conducting style is very connected to my dad’s. He’s a very physical and emotional conductor. He really uses his body to communicate with the musicians, which is very much the way my dad conducted.”
It wasn’t easy, Nézet-Séguin concedes. “It’s a little awkward for a musician to imitate another musician’s interpretation. But I admire Lenny so much that I was able, with pleasure, to try and forget my own self and re-create Lenny’s interpretation.” All the music was conducted over three days with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at London’s AIR studios.
The Mahler sequence, shot in England’s Ely Cathedral, replicates a legendary performance Bernstein gave there in 1973. Bernstein was perhaps the world’s foremost conductor of Mahler’s music; both men were music directors of the New York Philharmonic at different times in the century (Mahler, 1909-1911; Bernstein, 1958-69).
The unit had just one day to shoot in the 900-year-old Anglican church, and Cooper needed four to five hours in the makeup chair to look like the 55-year-old conductor. The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were present and the choir was especially antsy, Ruder recalls, feeling that an hour-long rehearsal might be necessary to achieve the right sonic balance in the cavernous room.
But there was no time. Ruder says he and Cooper joked about “what might happen if it goes horribly wrong,” but apparently very little did. Of particular concern was the decision to conduct the music in the traditional manner, without the usual movie click-track requirements that would have been helpful later in synchronizing the music to specific shots. “It just magically worked out,”
“Bradley readily grasped all the connections between Bernstein and Mahler,” Jamie Bernstein says. “My father was practically channeling Mahler when he would conduct. Mahler’s music-making, and the things he was expressing, were so connected to the things my father expressed in his music.”
The Bernstein children were not present, she adds. “We were not at any of the filming, as much as we were invited to be part of Bradley’s process. But when we saw it, we were astonished. It was real.”
Bernstein, although revered today throughout the music world, was often controversial in his time. Classical purists failed to understand his eclectic choices, writing for the concert hall one day and Broadway or a movie the next. His “Mass,” as seen in Cooper’s film, combined elements of rock, jazz and traditional choral music, and received mostly negative reviews upon its premiere in 1971.
But, as Jamie Bernstein points out, he was unique, and an extraordinary communicator, as seen in his frequent appearances on television (“Omnibus” in the 1950s, “Young People’s Concerts” in the 1960s, his “Unanswered Question” lectures on PBS in the 1970s).
Nézet-Séguin shares these views: “He was too Broadway for classical, too classical for Broadway, too much of a composer when he was on the podium and too much of a conductor when he was composing. It was a time in classical music when it was all about putting everything into small boxes. Nowadays the message is completely opposite. Now we want to break boundaries, and thanks to Leonard Bernstein we are able to do this.”
The composer’s daughter agrees. “One of my hopes, and that of my brother and sister, is that viewers will be enchanted by the Bernstein music and want to discover, or re-discover, his compositions. There are so many of them and they’re so varied and fabulous. I am a shameless Bernstein booster. I hope the world discovers how wonderful it is.”