Adam Cushman’s loving portrait of composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (a.k.a. Maestro) was a great challenge for me in my current role as film critic/writer, having been a maestro myself for 20 years (conductor of professional orchestras). My mentors (all maestros in their own right including Frederick Karam, Karl Ančerl, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Boyd Neel and Robert Page) were all brought back to vivid life in various ways by writer C.V. Herst’s imaginative portrayal and Xander Berkeley’s exemplary performance of Tedesco: a wine-swigging, cigarette-smoking Italian composer-teacher who wrote many uncredited scores for MGM and urged his students to “show me some feelings” in their music.
At the centre of it all is Jerry Herst (Leo Marks does a commendable job in his role as one-time lawyer, one-hit-songwriter—”So Rare”—taking another large kick at the never-easy life of being a full-time artist), who opts to leave family and girlfriend far behind and try to discover whether or not he has “it” in Los Angeles (finances courtesy of the GI Bill).
The uneasiness with this decision, self-doubt, scorn and chiding from Tedesco (fuelled mostly by fatherly love) all rang true with my early days trying to figure out if I could make a living as a musician (turns out I could: only forced to withdraw from the field once I realized that the politics in and around the symphony boardroom threatened to destroy my love of our most universal art form—that in itself might be fodder for a subsequent feature).
Amidst Herst’s growth as an artist, the subplot focusses on this derelict lodgings: Joëlle Séchaud does a first-rate job playing the ever-crotchety Mrs. Stella—landlord from hell who finally surrenders to Herst’s art—replete with roommates in various stages of trying to make “it” on their own (notably actor-wannabee Holden—Logan Trainer literally adds elements of poetry before vanishing forever, stage left).
With all of the piano music stemming from teacher and student, the film’s music department wisely uses dueling guitars to provide the bulk of the original score (having Tedesco’s sons—done up nicely by Michael Johnston and Joe Blute—appear for their “lesson” rendering a two-guitar version of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra—The Thieving Magpie—is a wonderful moment of bringing behind-the-scenes talent into on-camera focus).
Finding one’s “voice” is a Herculean task. With this production, Cushman has demonstrated that he has found his. JWR