The expert in question in “The Maestro” is famed composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Xander Berkeley), who over the course of his career contributed to more than 200 movies, many as a “ghost composer.” Yet the real focus of Adam Cushman’s film is actually Jerry Herst (Leo Marks), an aspiring musician who in 1945 Los Angeles became one of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s students. By consigning its most interesting character to a supporting role, this amiable slice of fictionalized history loses a good deal of its heft. Nonetheless, solid direction and a charming Berkeley turn help it stave off insubstantiality, and should make it an appealing option for those interested in a pleasant alternative to big-studio fare.
Wearing dark-rimmed glasses, boasting a gray beard and hair that sticks out in slight tufts from the side of his balding head, and puffing away from his cigarette holder, the Italian-born Castelnuovo-Tedesco is introduced telling an older pupil, “If you were to have been famous, it would have happened by now.” Such no-nonsense assessments are precisely what new apprentice Herst craves, given that, following his brief WWII service, he’s abandoned his family and paramour (who waited for him during the war) to see if he has what it takes to make it in the cinema music scene. And no matter that he has a former number one pop hit to his credit, his self-doubt is mounting by the minute.
Moving into a boarding house run by crabby Mrs. Stella (Joëlle Séchaud), Herst befriends other aspiring artists while toiling away at a piano located in the establishment’s dingy basement. He also regularly visits Castelnuovo-Tedesco (who lives with his wife Clara, played by Berkeley’s real-life spouse Sarah Clarke), and it’s during these sequences that “The Maestro” shows its primary signs of life. In a prolonged zoom into closeup of the duo at the piano — a composition that will later be echoed in reverse — Cushman strives to capture the magical exchange that occurs when a teacher strikes a profound chord in a pupil, unlocking a spark of creative inspiration. It’s a quiet moment that flirts with the ineffable, and though the scene doesn’t wholly achieve its intended ends, it’s a testament to Cushman’s storytelling skills (and to Berkeley’s assured turn) that it gets as close as it does.
Unfortunately, “The Maestro’s” dedication to understatement occasionally leads to torpor. There’s very little plot or energy here, a problem compounded by Marks’ stolid performance. The film is so dramatically placid that it simply coasts along from one minor incident to another, with nary a ripple in its narrative waters. Be it Herst bringing Castelnuovo-Tedesco to a party thrown by an old friend, a dinner get-together that turns sour, or a couple of wan Old Hollywood-skewering meetings between the musicians and MGM bigwig Herbert Englehart (the late Jon Polito), the action mistakes serenity for thoughtfulness, to its detriment.
Employing a series of impressively silky long takes (courtesy of cinematographer Colton Davie) and original compositions by Lucas Elliot Eberl, as well as those authored by Castelnuovo-Tedesco himself, director Cushman crafts his material with sunlight-dappled aesthetic elegance. And even when he indulges in spinning, arm-twirling pontificating, Berkeley brings a calm soulfulness to Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Together, they may not make “The Maestro” anything close to a masterpiece, but they do elevate it into a respectable low-key tribute to the talented composer, who enlightened Herst (and, presumably, others) with the knowledge that hearing your own inner voice, and chasing your dreams, is vital, no matter where it ultimately takes you.