Is ‘Maestro’ Based on A True Story? Just How Accurate Is Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein Movie?

Where to Stream:


Powered by Reelgood

The year of biopics isn’t over yet: Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s new biographical drama about composer Leonard Bernstein, is now on Netflix.

Maestro began streaming today, about a month after the movie opened in select theaters in November. Directed by Cooper—who also stars, co-wrote, and produced the film—the movie spans from Bernstein’s big conducting break in 1943 to his final years in the ’80s. But this movie is less about Bernstein’s life as a composer, and more about his relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan.

Bernstein’s real family has given the film their stamp of approval, and worked with Cooper on the film—and even defended the star, who is not Jewish, when he faced criticism for donning a large prosthetic nose to play the Jewish composer. But this is still Hollywood, and no Hollywood movie is just the facts. Read on to learn more about the Maestro true story and how accurate the Bradley Cooper Leonard Bernstein movie is.

Is Maestro based on a true story?

Yes, Maestro is a biopic, based on the true story of Leonard Bernstein, the Tony-winning composer known for Broadway hits like West Side Story, On the Waterfront, On the Town, and more.

The script was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post, First Man) and Cooper, who assisted Singer in rewriting the original draft when he came on board as the star and director. In an interview with The Wrap, Singer called the rewrites “intense,” explaining that in early drafts of the movie, the story was focused on Bernstein’s early career in the ’40s and ’50s. Cooper wanted to shift the focus of the movie onto his relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and take viewers up to Bernstein later years in the ’70s and ’80s. Cooper also cut back on a certain famous musical Bernstein is known for. “Bradley wanted to limit the amount of West Side Story in the movie,” Singer told The Wrap. “Lenny himself didn’t want to be remembered just for West Side Story, so in the whole film we only hear ‘Prologue,’ which Bradley uses in a tongue-in-cheek, inside-joke kind of way.”

American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990) conducting, circa 1975.
Photo: Getty Images

How accurate is Maestro to the true story of Leonard Bernstein’s life?

Like most Hollywood movies based on a true story, certain details of the real story were cut, changed, or added to Maestro to make for a more entertaining film. It’s impossible to know exactly what was said between Bernstein, who died in 1990 at the age of 72, and his wife Felicia Montealegre, who died in 1978 at the age of 56, in their private moments. That said, quite a few scenes in the film are based on real-life stories from Bernstein’s biographies, and from letters sent between Bernstein and his wife, and Bernstein and his loves.

Singer told The Wrap that while writing the film, he read several Bernstein biographies, and, he said, “I’d also gone to the Library of Congress, where they’d recently unsealed a treasure trove of love letters between Lenny and his gay lovers, as well as letters between Lenny and Felicia talking of his queer life.”

According to a 2018 memoir written by Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein—titled Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein—her parents met at a joint birthday party for Felicia and Claudio Arrau in 1946. This was after Bernstein made the front page of the New York Times in 1943, for subbing in at the last minute to conduct the New York Philharmonic when he was just 25 years old, after conductor Bruno Walter fell ill. (Seen in the movies as one of the very first scenes.) Jamie wrote that, “As the story came down to us, Lenny sat on the couch while Felicia curled up at his feet and fed him shrimp, one by one.” Singer and Cooper expanded on that first meeting, imagining that Lenny and Felicia left the party early, and went to an empty theater to run lines for Felicia’s upcoming production on an empty stage. As far as this reporter can tell, that story is invented for the movie.

Bernstein with his children Jamie (pointing) and Alexander Serge, and wife Felicia Montealegre, in 1957.
Bernstein with his children Jamie (pointing) and Alexander, and wife Felicia Montealegre, in 1957. Photo: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Though it’s skipped over in the film, Felicia and Lenny were engaged shortly after that first meeting, and then broke things off, while Felicia dated one of her costars, Richard Hart. Hart died of liver failure in 1951, and shortly after that, Lenny and Felicia were married for real. According to Jamie, who read her parents’ letters to each other, the two were married with the understanding that Bernstein was a gay man. In a letter written to her husband in 1951, the year they were married, Felicia wrote, “You are a homosexual and may never change. I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.”

Though the movie doesn’t make clear that Felicia always knew about Bernstein’s sexuality from the start, it does make clear that the two of them have some sort of understanding about it. And it seems to be open secret, at least amongst their friends—as evidenced by the scene where Lenny meets the baby of his former lover, musician David Oppenheim (played by Matt Bomer), and his wife Judy Holliday, and tells the infant, cheerfully, “I slept with both of your parents!”

One story from Jamie Bernstein’s memoir that makes it into the movie is the moment when she confronts her father about his sexuality, and he denies it. “We sat outside together on the glider on his little deck, the cicadas chirping and buzzing away in the humid darkness,” Jamie wrote. “Then Daddy got up and started pacing in front of me. Over the course of the next hour, he told me about the various people in his life who’d been envious of him, and who’d made up wicked stories about him to jeopardize his career . . . In short, he denied the rumors.” Jamie theorized it was likely her mother asked Bernstein to lie, “to preserve her own dignity.”

Some important characters in Bernstein’s life are not included in the film, such as his younger brother, Burton Bernstein. We do see Leonard’s sister, Shirley (played by Sarah Silverman), in several scenes, but Burton—a writer who was on staff at The New Yorker from 1957 to 1992, and often wrote about his family— is not included at all. But hey, did you want this to be a three hour movie?

One scene that was recreated from real life is Bernstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973, at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England. The orchestra plays Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, the “Resurrection Symphony,” and restored footage of Bernstein’s impassioned, sweaty, and tearful performance can be seen below.

In an interview for the Maestro production notes, Cooper explains how he strove to make every scene feel authentic to the real Bernstein’s life, by filming in the real locations where these stories take place. “We were in Carnegie Hall, we went to Ely Cathedral in London, we went to Tanglewood, we visited their apartment in the Dakota to recreate it, we were in Central Park, we went to Connecticut, we shot in their home, in their bedroom, in their kitchen, in their pool,” Cooper said. “It was all real. It had to be.”

Cooper dedicated the film to the three Bernstein children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina, for allowing the production so much access, including to the Bernstein family home, where several scenes were filmed. “They didn’t have to do that by the way,” he said. “The only offi cial thing they had to do was allow us the rights to the music but because they trusted me, they opened up their world, they went way above and beyond. That’s really the only reason why the movie was able to be so authentic.”