'The Maestro': Film Review

A humble quasi-biopic for film-score buffs only.
2/15/2019

Xander Berkeley plays an Italian who fled Fascism and schooled Hollywood's film-score giants in Adam Cushman's drama.

A sideways tribute to an underappreciated figure in the world of film music, Adam Cushman's The Maestro imagines the Italian immigrant who, while writing his own (often uncredited) music for Hollywood, was an esteemed tutor to giants including Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. Playing Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Xander Berkeley steps out of supporting TV roles but not quite into the spotlight, as the film's title character is seen only through the eyes of a man longing for his approval. The earnest but very modest pic will play best with film-score buffs, though most in that community will wish for a bigger focus (or any, really) on their heroes.

Leo Marks plays Jerry Herst, a Chicago lawyer whose aspirations to a music career were interrupted by World War II. (Though we might assume he's a composite, Herst was an actual person, and first-time screenwriter C.V. Herst wrote the pic.) Before the war, he had a hit song and a promising career; as the film tells the tale, he returned from the war bent on turning that promise into a grander artistic life.

Using his share of G.I. Bill funds, Herst goes to Los Angeles with a monkish devotion to his craft. He rents a bed in a boarding house full of similar aspiring artists — their caricaturish landlady, Joelle Sechaud's Mrs. Stella, puts them all in one room and doesn't even furnish a usable bathtub — and begins lessons with Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

The aging Italian is well connected (Igor Stravinsky comes over to get day-drunk in one scene) and revered for his ability to develop composers' talents. In scenes between the two, Berkeley sits like a shrink, speaking with flowery accent and gestures as Castelnuovo-Tedesco explains his intention to make each student sound more like himself. At first, the lessons have little to do with music theory: Go read poetry that speaks to you, he counsels Jerry in his hazy sunlit parlor. Later, he inquires, "You have sweetheart back home? Play your beloved."

Jerry does indeed have a sweetheart back home, a woman who waited for him through the war and is evidently wounded that he hasn't yet returned to help her contribute to the Baby Boom. But the woman is puzzlingly absent from the film, referred to on occasion by men but never making her own wishes known. This interrupted courtship is the main, but not the only, way the screenplay fails to breathe life into its protagonist, whose deference to his teacher is his only really credible characteristic. Jerry insists to friends and relatives that he has to know if he has it, and he strives to meet every challenge Castelnuovo-Tedesco sets before him. But if trying to make a movie about a struggling novelist is famously hard, The Maestro makes a composer's struggle look even harder to dramatize.

Marks acquits himself well in the underdeveloped role, and admirers of the late Jon Polito, who made his final screen appearance in a cameo here, will appreciate a performance steeped in his time helping the Coen Brothers reimagine the past. But budgetary and other constraints make this attempt to conjure post-war Hollywood more sincere than believable, a history lesson with little to offer even a serious film buff.

Production companies: White Rabbit, Phillm Productions
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Cast: Leo Marks, Xander Berkeley, Joelle Sechaud, David J. Phillips, Jon Polito
Director: Adam Cushman
Screenwriter: C.V. Herst
Producers: Adam Cushman, David J. Phillips
Executive producer: C.V. Herst
Director of photography: Colton Davie
Production designer: Eloise Ayala
Costume designer: Cailan Calandro
Editors: Adam Cushman, Anne Goursaud
Composer: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

96 minutes