Netflix’s biographical film ‘Maestro’ begins with Bradley Cooper’s character Leonard Bernstein, the legendary musician, playing his piano while talking about the death of his wife Felicia Montealegre. Throughout the film, Bernstein plays the instrument. The occasions range from the party at which he meets Felicia for the first time to a friendly visit by two of the latter’s friends while she suffers from cancer. In addition to conducting, playing piano is an integral part of the composer’s career in the period drama. Cooper started performing Bernstein with his piano basics covered but he had to spend years to perfect the art of conducting!
Bradley Cooper’s Experience as a Pianist
Bradley Cooper learned to play the piano way before he started playing Leonard Bernstein. The actor had to master the instrument for portraying the singer-songwriter Jackson “Jack” Maine in his directorial debut ‘A Star Is Born.’ “I’d wake up and work out, followed by two hours of guitar practice and two hours of piano lessons. Lunch. Then Lukas Nelson [Willie’s son], my collaborator, would come over, and we’d write music for one and a half hours,” the actor told W Magazine about learning piano for the film in 2018. He practiced the instrument for six months for the movie.
Cooper even captivated Lady Gaga, his co-star in the 2018 film, by playing ‘The Midnight Special’ with a piano. “Remember, we [Cooper and Gaga] had just met. I asked her if she knew the song ‘The Midnight Special,’ because I had memorized it, and she said no. But we downloaded the sheet music, and I sat next to her at her piano,” the actor added about him playing the instrument with the famed singer. The experience of learning and playing piano for ‘A Star is Born’ helped the actor to play Bernstein, who creates “Fancy Free” and “Mass” using the instrument in the film.
Although Cooper practiced piano for ‘Maestro’ as well, he admits that he is not a virtuoso. “I can only learn the thing that you see! The same thing as in ‘A Star is Born’ – I just learned those specific pieces because I never wanted to cut to a hand, or do some sort of face replacement,” the actor told Classic FM about playing the instrument in the biographical drama. In one of the scenes in the film, Bernstein plays piano with his friend Aaron Copland (Brian Clements). Cooper and Clements played piano in real for the sequence. “We spent months learning that piece. And that’s us playing. What you’re hearing is a much, much better version of playing – but that is us playing!” he added.
In addition to mastering the art of playing piano, Cooper spent six years learning to conduct like Bernstein, especially to shoot a conducting scene live on set that has a duration of over six minutes. “That scene I was so worried about because we did it live. That was the London Symphony Orchestra. I was recorded live. I had to conduct them. And I spent six years learning how to conduct six minutes and 21 seconds of music,” he said while attending a Q&A session moderated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Cooper wanted to be a conductor since he was a boy and he even asked Santa Claus for a baton at the age of eight.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the conducting consultant for the movie and the music director of The Metropolitan Opera, helped Cooper achieve his dream for ‘Maestro.’ “He [Cooper] came to me knowing the mimics… but how do you make it believable so he can conduct…? We didn’t start from scratch. It was more to take where he was and give him some technical assurance whilst leaving him free to be Leonard Bernstein as an actor,” Nézet-Séguin told People about teaching conducting to Cooper.