Q Magazine

When Music Is the Story: The Greatest Portrayals of Conductors on Film

Bradley Cooper's turn as Leonard Bernstein makes him the latest in a long line of actors to take up the conductor's baton.

Source: Jason McDonald / Netflix

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Netflix's 'Maestro.'

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While Bradley Cooper is courting Oscar attention for his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in "Maestro," he joins an eclectic array of actors who have taken up the baton.

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Bradley Cooper, 'Maestro' (2023)

When Bradley Cooper came on board for the biopic of composer Leonard Bernstein, he was stepping into some very big shoes. Not only had the film been booted around by heavyweight directors Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (both stayed on as producers), but the Bernstein children were notoriously tough on depictions of their father and mother.

In several interviews, Cooper explained that his characterization involved not only a six-year commitment to the narrative (learning how to conduct, working with a vocal coach) but also the pressures as a producer, co-writer, director and star, combined with grueling hours spent in the make-up chair as facial prosthetics were applied that were necessary to prepare him for his portrayal of one of the most charismatic figures in 20th-century music.

Source: © Netflix / YouTube

Maestro | Official Teaser | Netflix

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Tom Hulce, 'Amadeus' (1984)

Long considered ground-breaking in its portrayal of classical music, this eight-time-Oscar-winning film presents Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an outlier to all that is considered sacred in the court of Emperor Joseph II. The film, largely fictionalized, showcases the friendship and rivalry between Mozart and Italian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Hulce's innate ability to simultaneously portray awe with his composing and conducting abilities (illustrated with vigorous energy), causing outrage with his salacious interactions and eliciting sympathy from his sponsors is all the more heartbreaking, considering Mozart's death at age 35, which is shrouded in uncertainty and myth.

Source: © AMLF and the Saul Zaentz Company / YouTube

Amadeus (1984) Official Trailer - F. Murray Abraham, Mozart Drama Movie HD

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Roger Daltrey, 'Lisztomania' (1975)

Director Ken Russell had just come off his work on the Who's Tommy when he decided to cast Roger Daltrey in his production of Lisztomania. Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer whose charismatic personality and flamboyant piano playing cast him as one of the first idols: women tore up and fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves brought on by his good looks and dazzling appeal hence the term 'Lisztomania' was coined by 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine.

Daltrey, while possessing the necessary rock star looks and adequate acting chops for the role, nonetheless led a storyline that veered into berserk visuals in typical Russell fashion: surrealistic episodes of events in Liszt's life, juxtaposed with modern-day sci-fi (Daltrey flying a spaceship powered by keyboards) and out and out weirdness, provoking many critics to suggest that Russell should have "quit while he was ahead."

Source: © Warmer Bros. / YouTube

Lisztomania (1975) Trailer

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Cate Blanchett, 'Tár' (2022)

It's a testament to the intensity of Cate Blanchett's Oscar-nominated turn as a superstar conductor in Todd Field's Tár that more than a few cinemagoers were confused to learn, after the fact, that Lydia Tár is not an actual person. And you can't really blame them: judging by the performance onscreen, Tár seems every bit as real as the larger-than-life artists elsewhere on this list. As conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the (fictional) classical music celebrity's life is upended by a series of very plausible-seeming social media-driven scandals, as well as a sensitivity to sounds that manifest as chronic pain and daytime hallucinations. As these episodes grow more dramatic, it begins to strain the relationships she has with her wife Sharon, their daughter and the circle of people who either support her actions or damn her personality — which is revealed towards the conclusion, including a suitably appropriate nod to Leonard Bernstein.

Source: © Focus Features / YouTube

TÁR - Official Trailer [HD] - In Select Theaters October 7


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