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THE SCOOP | Netflix Announces Leonard Bernstein Bio-Pic With Bradley Cooper Directing And Starring

By Anya Wassenberg on January 22, 2020

Leonard Bernstein conducts at the Holland Festival on May 30, 1985 (Photo courtesy of the Nationaal Archief, Holland, under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license)
Leonard Bernstein conducts at the Holland Festival on May 30, 1985 (Photo courtesy of the Nationaal Archief, Holland, under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license)

Netflix has committed to a Leonard Bernstein bio-pic helmed by Bradley Cooper, with producers Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Cooper’s partner in his Joint Effort company, Todd Phillips (who directed Joker), on board.

The streaming service has acquired all the rights to the as yet untitled movie project. Cooper will direct, produce, and star in the film, with a script co-written with Josh Singer, known for the Oscar-winning Spotlight.

The film will feature music by the late composer, including songs from West Side Story, after Cooper was granted exclusive music rights from the Bernstein estate. The story will span three decades, and focus on the relationship between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre.

The Bernstein flick has had a tangled history.

Scorsese originally took on the project in order to direct it himself, but he stepped aside and allowed Cooper to take over while he went on to The Irishman. Long before that development, however, Fred Berner and Amy Durning, who remain as part of the production team on the Cooper movie, began pitching a Bernstein movie project more than a decade ago. Paramount had actually secured the rights to the Bernstein music and story years ago, but that agreement had expired before they could act on it. Another script was proposed about five years ago.

At one point, two Bernstein bio-pics were in the works.

On May 1, 2018, the centennial year of Bernstein’s birthday, Jake Gyllenhaal announced he would be starring as Bernstein in another bio-pic project titled The American, with Cary Fukunaga directing through Bron Studios, a Canadian company based in British Columbia. With a script based on Humphrey Burton’s biography titled simply, Leonard Bernstein, shooting was supposed to start in fall 2019.

Gyllenhaal, shepherding the project as both star and producer, was quoted in a media release at the time. “Like many people, Leonard Bernstein found his way into my life and heart through West Side Story when I was a kid. But as I got older and started to learn about the scope of his work, I began to understand the extent of his unparalleled contribution and the debt of gratitude modern American culture owes him. As a man, Bernstein was a fascinating figure — full of genius and contradiction — and it will be an incredible honor to tell his story with a talent and friend like Cary Fukunaga.”

Leonard Bernstein seated at piano, making annotations to musical score, 1955 (Public domain photo from the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)
Leonard Bernstein seated at piano, making annotations to musical score, 1955 (Public domain photo from the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)

But, on May 10, 2018, Cooper announced his own Bernstein movie.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, it was Steven Spielberg, impressed by Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, who suggested the Bernstein project to Cooper in the first place. Cooper agreed, with Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment on as producers.

Naturally any Bernstein bio-pic would need to be awarded the rights to use the music, overseen by the estate through Bernstein’s children Jamie, Alexander and Nina, and Spielberg already had a connection with the Bernstein kids through his negotiations with them regarding a West Side Story remake. The estate gave its blessing to the Cooper project, originally through Paramount Pictures. Netflix has since taken over from Paramount.

Spielberg will direct a reboot of West Side Story, Bernstein’s most famous Hollywood collaboration, starring Ansel Elgort. As for The American, without the rights to use the music, it appears to have fallen into the Hollywood black hole, with Gyllenhaal announcing he was out of the project in an interview in late 2018.

Netflix Head of Film Scott Stuber confirmed the deal with Cooper and his partners in an interview with Deadline. “His strong passion and clear vision for bringing to life the relationship between the iconic composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre promises to do their lives justice as only this renowned filmmaking team can. We are honored to be working with the Bernsteins to share their family’s story with audiences everywhere.”

It seems that Cooper’s passion for Bernstein and classical music goes deeper than just a movie role. He’s been known to sit in the pit with the Met Orchestra in New York City and hang with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In June 2019, he and actor Carey Mulligan, rumoured to be his co-star in the upcoming Bernstein film, narrated parts for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s season ending performance of Bernstein’s Candide.

Leonard Bernstein was just 25 when he became the youngest guest conductor ever of the New York Philharmonic. Known as a composer who could span the bridge between classical and popular music, opera and theatre, he died on October 14, 1990, at the age of 72.

As it did with The Irishman and other recent high profile projects, Netflix will be releasing the film in movie theatres first, before offering it on its streaming service. The move will make the film eligible for the Oscars and other awards.

Production is expected to begin in early 2021.

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
Follow me
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