About That R.E.M. Needle Drop in Maestro

3 minute read

There is a meta moment toward the end of the Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s new drama about West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein and his relationship with the actor Felicia Montealegre, which hits theaters Nov. 22 and Netflix Dec. 20.

In the final minutes of the film, the audience hears a snippet of the 1987 song “It's The End of The World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by the American rock band R.E.M.—specifically the lyric that rattles off the composer by name alongside other famous people who have first names that begin with the letter “L” and last names that begin with the letter “B” (including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, comedian Lenny Bruce, and music journalist Lester Bangs). The lyric originated from a dream R.E.M. songwriter Michael Stipe had, in which he was the only one without the initials L.B. at a star-studded birthday party, according to R.E.M. Fiction: An Alternative Biography by David Buckley.

In the movie, the song blares out of the speakers of a convertible with a license plate that says MAESTRO as Bernstein is arriving to teach a course to young conducting students. Given the song’s release date and the fact that Bernstein died three years later, in 1990, this moment takes place in the final years of his life, a time when, as the movie shows in a scene when he is dancing with a young male student at club following the class, he is living more openly in his truth.

The song’s appearance in the movie is a cheeky, self-aware nod to Bernstein’s legacy and his influence on musicians of all genres. But its placement is also timely because the track just experienced a resurgence in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its apocalyptic title. In March 2020, the hit shot up to no. 4 on LyricFind’s ranking of song lyrics generating the most search queries in the U.S. Downloads of the track rose 184%, and there was a 48% up-tick in U.S. streams, according to Nielsen music data. On March 17, 2020, Stipe posted a PSA video on Twitter, urging people not to go out and socialize so that they wouldn’t risk spreading the virus to others.

Stipe also made headlines in 2015 for objecting to Donald Trump’s use of the song as walk-up music at a rally on the 2016 campaign trail.

It’s apt that Bernstein would be featured in a rock anthem known for its “stream of consciousness” lyrics, as he had a reputation for being a particularly intense person.

“He hated to be alone,” Paul R. Laird, a Leonard Bernstein scholar and musicologist at the University of Kansas, told TIME. “He was the life of every party he was at.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com