Jamie Bernstein Talks About Bradley Cooper’s Biopic Of Her Dad

With the much-anticipated November release of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, I spoke to Leonard Bernstein’s eldest daughter Jamie Bernstein – about the movie, the man, and his music. We spoke about his sometimes conflicting roles as composer, conductor, teacher and father. I conducted one of the last major interviews with Bernstein back in 1989, a year before his premature death, and that experience enriched my enthusiasm and understanding of this legendary musician and most complex of human beings.

Leonard Bernstein, 1985

© Sjakkelien Vollebregt | Dutch National Archive

Edward Seckerson: So Jamie, you know better than most that I can talk for England – some might unkindly say bore for England – about your father, one of my great musical heroes. But even I didn’t think I would see him portrayed on the silver screen in my lifetime. Did you?

Jamie Bernstein: I never imagined it – and neither did my brother and sister! We were not fantasising that maybe someday there would be a film about our dad. It wasn’t on our radar at all. The inquiry first came quite a long time ago: this project began fifteen years ago, when the producer Fred Berner and his partner Amy Derning came to the Bernstein offices and pitched this idea for what, back then, was more of a standard biopic. We said “Okay!” and gave them the option, and then the years went by, and the film was just never getting around to being made.

It was first attached to Martin Scorsese, and he was excited about making the film, but he had all these other projects that always seemed to come first. And the years went by and the film never got made, so we just stopped thinking about it – this is obviously not likely to happen, and we’re not going to fret about it. There was so much else to think about: our dad’s centennial came along in 2018, so there were so many other distractions.

Eventually, the project migrated to Steven Spielberg. But he too was incredibly preoccupied and distracted, and had another bunch of projects – including West Side Story, the remake. Then he started looking to pass the project along to someone else, and he was also looking for someone to star in it. That was how it came to Bradley Cooper, because Steven Spielberg asked Bradley to star in it. And then Bradley, knowing that Steven himself wasn’t going to be able to direct it, asked if he could put his own hat in the ring.

Bradley Cooper as Bernstein in Maestro

© Netflix

A Star is Born had not yet been released, but he arranged for a screening, for Spielberg. He said, “Take a look at this film I just made, and see what you think.” The way the story is told by Kristie Macosko Krieger, who is Spielberg’s co-producer, was that they sat down to watch the film, and about twenty minutes in, Spielberg leant over to Bradley Cooper and said: “You’re going to direct this Bernstein film. You’re a director. This is it.” And that’s how the whole project came to Bradley Cooper.

ES: He’s jaw-dropping in it, it’s quite uncanny. Not just the appearance, but the mannerisms, the speech, the energy, all those things. At the heart of it, this is essentially a film about your family – your parents. It’s very private in many ways.

JB: It is, and in fact it was only when Bradley Cooper came on to the project that he changed the approach. It became something quite different from a standard biopic. Bradley’s idea, which appealed very much to Alexander, Nina and me, was to make it more of a portrait of a marriage. It’s really the story of Lenny and Felicia, and what artists and married people go through, in the course of their lives, pursuing all their different passions and dreams and longings – and frustrations. So that’s what the film became with Bradley.

It turns out that Bradley Cooper is one of those all in, passionate, driven, focused people, not unlike Leonard Bernstein. And we didn’t know it at the beginning at all. It gradually became apparent to us, as the project was being hatched, “you know, Bradley’s a lot like our dad!” He’s the perfect guy to play him, as they have that same energy.

Felicia and Leonard Bernstein, 1958

© Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress

ES: That’s the one feature that I immediately took away from it. The film deals with some difficult stuff, and it doesn’t flinch. Bernstein’s sexual proclivities with men, for example. There is a scene in which you confront your father – I can’t imagine watching that scene yourself. Did you have misgivings about including that sort of intimacy in the film?

JB: I didn’t, because I had already gone through it myself, in my own book. That was where Bradley read about that: it wasn’t so much that I confronted my father, as much as my father found out that I was upset about hearing these rumours, up at Tanglewood. And I suspected, but had no proof, that it was my mother who encouraged my father to take up the subject with me, and to deny the rumours. But that’s mere speculation on my part. That was an element that Bradley decided to run with.

In writing my own book, I had already wrestled with the discomforts of telling the truth, to the degree that that was uncomfortable. My brother and sister and I really went through it together, because I told them I was going to show them everything I wrote, and they had total veto power over what I was writing. If there was anything that they were uncomfortable with, I would take it out. In the end, they were incredibly supportive, and like me, they felt that it was always better to talk honestly and directly about difficult things, in the context of our family’s mutual love and connectedness. And that if you addressed difficult issues within that context, it’s better than skirting the issues or not talking about them, or obfuscating.

ES: I don’t want to give too much away, but at the heart of the film is a climactic sequence which is a recreation of the historic filmed Mahler 2 in Ely Cathedral, which followed performances in Edinburgh. You may not know this but I was at that performance – this was long before I was a fledgling journalist. I was there at your dad’s invitation: I had written a fan-letter to him, about Mass, so can you imagine the emotion of seeing that performance recreated onscreen. It’s uncanny what Bradley does in that sequence – I’m sure he had excellent coaching from Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s very convincing.

JB: It’s amazing. You can imagine how sensitive my brother, sister and I are about watching actors purporting to be conducting orchestras onscreen. We can smell it a mile off when it doesn’t seem quite pursuasive. But we just couldn’t get over how good Bradley was at it.

ES: If you do an A-B comparison with the filmed version, you can see how uncanny it is.

JB: He did his homework, and then some!

Leonard Bernstein conducts Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 at Ely Cathedral with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973.

ES: Let’s talk a bit about him as a conductor. I’ve spent my career trying to fathom, let alone define, the black magic that makes some performers change the way the air moves in the room. Your father was one. It was about inhabiting the music, particularly in the case of Mahler, with whom he identified so closely.

JB: Inhabiting and communicating, that was the thing that made my father such a very good teacher, that he would get so excited about things and then immediately need to share it with others. His own enthusiasm always had to be turned back outward. It was the same with everything he did – everything had this quality, of communicating something he was excited about. That went from telling a good Jewish joke, to reciting Lewis Carroll, to playing a Mahler symphony, and rehearsing with the orchestra. Then he was sharing it with them, and when he would perform, it was to share it with the audience. It was always this circuit of energy. Isn’t it perfect, that the leader of an orchestra is called a conductor? Because it really is as if they are the conduit of an electrical circuit – that the energy goes around in a circle, between the performers and the audience, through the conductor.

ES: Extraordinary. There’s that wonderful clip of him conducting Hadyn’s 88th Symphony – or not conducting it, just with his eyebrows and his face, and his shoulders. He was an extraordinary communicator.

Bernstein’s Haydn encore with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1983.

ES: He also said once – and there were a lot of bon mots from your father ­­– but one of them was that he could always tell the extent to which a performance was going well (or badly) by the extent to which he felt as if he was composing it himself, as he went along. I think that’s a wonderful remark!

Mahler was an extraordinary thing for him, and in a sense his life was like Mahler’s, in that there was never enough time. Superstar conductor – never enough time for composition. He identified with the light and darkness in that music. I don’t know if you were at that famous Proms performance, of the Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is one of the best things of anything, that I’ve ever seen. It was just one of those golden occasions.

JB: I wish I had been there! I wasn’t.

ES: The other thing about him is that the learning never ended. He was a great teacher, but for him the learning never ended.

JB: It was a continuous cycle – the teaching and the learning, it went in a circle inside him, all the time. He was always absorbing new information and new joys.

ES: I remember a story that Craig Urquhart told me about him in Vienna, he was about to conduct Beethoven’s Seventh, which he had conducted dozens of times before. He left Bernstein at his hotel and said, “I’ll see you at breakfast”, and in the morning Lenny clearly hadn’t slept at all. He said, “I’ve been up all night, with this”, and he pointed at the score, saying “I really didn’t know it at all.” I think it’s amazing – that the learning process just keeps going.

JB: He did that also with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, one summer in Tanglewood, and I remember him rediscovering the piece – taking it apart and reassembling his approach to it, from scratch. He was well into his later years, when he decided he had to completely re-think the Pathetique Symphony.

ES: There’s a live recording of that piece, and the last movement feels eternal. I remember talking to one or two New York Phil performers and asking, “Did it feel slow?” And they said, “No”. Because, in the moment – and this is what was so extraordinary about him – you needed to be there, you needed to be in that moment.

ES: When we met in 1989, I resolved to only talk about his own music, and one of the fun things about Maestro is spotting all the clips, all the musical references. The soundtrack is entirely Bernstein…

JB: Except for that bit of Mahler and that spot of Beethoven. But I think of it really as a co-star in the film – the Bernstein music. And I’m so thrilled that Bradley wanted to put so much Bernstein music in, to really use it as the illustrative musical element in the film. Because there’s so much Bernstein music that audiences don’t necessarily know. Sure, they know West Side Story, but Spielberg brought that back around, so that’s all taken care of. But there’s all this other music that people might not be so familiar with – and there it all is, so much of it in Bradley’s film.

ES: That’s wonderful. I remember in our conversation for that interview – and it’s strongly illustrated in the film – how insecure he was about his music being taken seriously. There’s a moment in the film where someone talks to him about one of his music theatre pieces, and he dismisses it and says, “No I’ve got bigger plans.” I wish he’d lived long enough to see these pieces, the concert pieces and the musical theatre pieces, become such core repertoire.

JB: I wish it too. I wish he’d lived longer altogether! But he didn’t take very good physical care of himself, did he.

ES: Well one of the aspects of the film is everybody’s smoking all the time.

Leonard with Alexander and Jamie Bernstein, Connecticut, 1966

© Leonard Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress

JB: It might seem over the top, but it isn’t. It really was like that. I remember growing up, the ubiquity of cigarette smoke, which was a smell I really didn’t like. My parents, basically, were smoking every waking moment of their lives. And since my father slept so little, he basically never stopped smoking! And then they both died of lung cancer, didn’t they, so there you go.

ES: It’s so tragic. He really wasn’t at all well when I met him. But he was thrilled that someone wanted to talk about his music. Those insecurities I’m referring to: you wrote your own narration for his Third Symphony, “Kaddish”, and which is terribly clever, because it addresses the “father” as your father, as opposed to God.

JB: I had to change it. James Conlon invited me to narrate the “Kaddish” Symphony with its existing narration, and I said I would never do that, it was too embarrassing. The first line of the narration, addressing God, is “Oh my Father”, and that’s already so embarrassing that I couldn’t even conceive of it. So James Conlon said, “Write your own narration.” I replied, “I’ll never get permission,” and then I did! So I went ahead and wrote my own narration.

ES: There are moments in that narration where you say yourself, for goodness’ sake, be yourself, write what comes from the heart. Because there are things he wrote that are just so special.

Jamie Bernstein narrates Symphony no. 3 “Kaddish”: II. Din-Torah.

ES: He was a great melodist as well.

JB: He was a great melodist, but he was very conflicted about being a melodist, because that was frowned upon in the mid-twentieth century. In order to be considered a so-called serious composer, you were supposed to write twelve-tone music. No tunes, no key signatures, just very thorny and cerebral. He was very capable of writing that kind of music, he wrote it whenever he felt like it. It was one of the colours on his musical palette, but it wasn’t what he was going to do exclusively. There’s lots of twelve-tone music in the “Kaddish” Symphony, but then it defaults to a glorious tune – which was just the moment when all the critics would go stomping out the door in disgust.

ES: But times have changed…

JB: You bet they have, and I’m sorry he didn’t live long enough to see that happen. It’s gratifying. And nowadays, contemporary composers really look to Bernstein as a role model, a template, for the kind of composer they like to be. Which is to say, they can write any kind of music they feel like, and nobody’s going to give them a hard time about that any more.

ES: Absolutely. He also enjoyed the gamesmanship of composition, and pieces like the Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, using variations but in a very original way…

JB: Using the tail of one as the head of the next.

ES: I love that piece. I referred to Mass earlier – I think there are now five recordings of it. This is a piece that people maligned in some quarters. I became obsessed with it because I felt that the variety of musics in it defined him: defined the way he would embrace music in all its guises. How that music would transcend and cross all those barriers: religious, social, whatever you care to make. We’ve been on panels talking about Mass – do you love it as much as I do?

JB: I do – I was there when my father was writing it. His incorporating elements of rock music felt very personal to me, and to my brother. My sister was very young at the time, but Alexander and I felt as if he was incorporating those contemporary pop music elements because of us, to include us in his process, and to point his music at us and our generation.

Gospel-Sermon: “God Said” from Mass.

ES: That’s another thing about your dad, that he was always theatrical. His music is theatrical, everything about him was theatrical. Maybe that’s why the connection with people like me, who love the theatre, was made so strongly.

JB: I think it’s not just it’s theatrical, it’s that so much of his music is text-driven. He loved words every bit as much as notes, and he was such a reader. Even if there was no text in a given piece of music, there was a good chance that it was text-inspired. Like Age of Anxiety, or like Serenade, which are based on classic literary works. The works are always lurking in the wings.

ES: Have you a favourite piece of his?

JB: Oh! Well Alexander, Nina and I always joke that when we’re asked that question, it’s whatever we just heard most recently. But I do have a really special place in my heard for Serenade. The violin concerto, it’s so beautiful – and the Agathon, the slow movement. It’s just a killer.

ES: And of course that has become core repertoire for violinists all over the world now.

JB: Yes it has, and I’m so glad, as I can never hear it enough.

Gidon Kremer performs Serenade: IV. Agathon

ES: There never really was enough time for him, was there. The most beautiful song that Betty Comden and Adolph Green and he wrote was “Some Other Time”, from On the Town. His famous remark, that to achieve great things, two things are necessary: a plan…

JB: …and not quite enough time!

ES: You must have seen that at close quarters, when he was trying to juggle all of these things.

JB: I did, especially with Mass, because it was calamitously behind schedule. He was running out of time, and didn’t have time to write the lyrics, and that was really why Steven Schwartz came into the picture, to help expedite the whole project. Steven Schwartz came in in about May of 1971, and it premiered in September! They really slammed the whole thing together in three months.

ES: It’s extraordinary, provided you have the right voices. The Street Chorus, if you get that casting right, you’re halfway there, because those little Tropes are so beautiful.

Trope: “I Go On” from Mass.

ES: So, looking back, what do you feel, had he lived that extra decade? He said to me, in the interview, “I’ve decided that people don’t need to hear another Mahler 8, or Bruckner 5, but nobody can write my music except me”. Do you think he would have devoted more time to composition, or was it just impossible for him to choose…

JB: He was already planning his next piece, but he died too soon, and didn’t get a chance to develop it. He was planning to an opera about the Holocaust, that was going to be in several languages. He had already had conversations with several potential collaborators, but it didn’t come to be, alas.

ES: He needed to find that time – but I’d felt that he’d resolved, that if he had a few years left, he would try to devote it to composing…

JB: And to teaching. That was what he said at the end of his life, that he wanted to really turn more fully to teaching. Of course the irony is that he was always teaching anyway, everything that he did was a form of teaching.

Addressing a Young People’s Concert, Carnegie Hall, 1960

© Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress

ES: I hope that when people see Maestro, that because they’ll hear this music on the soundtrack, even if they don’t know what it is – and it’s used very cleverly in the film, right at the beginning, that percussive section from On the Waterfront, or that two-clarinet section from Age of Anxiety, carefully placed so they mean something in the context of the script – I’m hoping that people will go away and investigate these pieces.

JB: That is surely what my brother and sister and I hope. That people who go to see Bradley Cooper’s film will fall in love with Bernstein’s music, because of how it affects the viewer, in the soundtrack. They will release that music as something you can download, or purchase in three-dimensional form. With any luck, this will encourage people to investigate further.

ES: And investigate the complete pieces. It’ll direct them to other sources. Well thank you Jamie – we’re spreading the word, I guess!

JB: I guess we are! And thank you Bradley Cooper for giving us this fabulous way to spread the word!

Maestro is in select cinemas from 22nd November, and is streaming on Netflix from 20th December.

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