The Hollywood biopic has rarely if ever accurately portrayed the lives of historical personages. As a youngster, I simply believed everything I saw, and so had somewhat skewed perspectives on everyone from Harlow to Cromwell. The first inkling that Hollywood might take occasional liberties with its subject matter came when I attended one of the west coast premieres of Patton. It just so happened my own father was a two star General who, as a Colonel, had been a much decorated battalion commander under the real George S., and had been invited to the gala premiere in Seattle. As soon as George C. Scott opened the film with that famous monologue in front of the American flag, my father leaned over to me and whispered, "Those may be Patton's words, but it sure as hell doesn't sound like him. He had the whiniest little high voice you've ever heard!" My disillusionment was probably capped some years later when I discovered that the riveting film Frances had next to nothing to do with the real Frances Farmer's life. Luckily, by the year after Frances' wide release, I, as well as I'm sure others less naive than I was, knew going in that Amadeus was not going to give anything approaching veracity when it came to depicting the life of compositional wunderkind Wolfgang Mozart (Tom Hulce). And in this instance, I, too, knew that the source play for the film was a fictional look at a lesser-known composer, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), and his warped perspective on a competitor who stole the limelight that the less talented Salieri believed should rightfully be shining on him. Therefore any untruths in Amadeus were, thankfully, part and parcel of the film's point.
Twin brothers Peter and Anthony Shaffer have crafted some of the most literate and involving plays with thriller elements of the past 50 years or so. Anthony's best known play, Sleuth, was a tour de force for two actors who got to not only delve into the class system of Britain but enact an incredibly convoluted tale of revenge. Peter on the other hand has given us a string of brilliant investigations into various forms of madness, from the dysfunctional family of Five Finger Exercise to Pizarro's slow loss of faith in The Royal Hunt of the Sun to the bizarre blinding of horses that is at the crux of Equus. Peter certainly is capable of brilliant parlor comedy, which in the case of plays like Lettice and Lovage, still tiptoe around elements of a certain kind of madness (Lettice, a tour guide at a 16th century manor house, tends to pepper her tours with ever escalating untruths), but it's his dramas that most fully develop these themes. That very same Lettice recoloring of history similarly peppers (and salts) Amadeus, as the film is told entirely from Salieri's viewpoint, a viewpoint Salieri shares from a wheelchair in a mental hospital. And so right up front the audience is let in on a sort of fractured element to the storytelling itself--it's coming from a probably mentally unbalanced soul who didn't really care for the title "hero" to begin with. (It should be mentioned that Shaffer was following in a long tradition of "stretching" the truth about Salieri and Mozart; Aleksandr Pushkin tread much the same territory well over a century earlier in his play about the pair).
There's little doubt that the real Mozart was in actuality something of a boor. The equivalent of a child superstar in his early life, Mozart, as so many child superstars in this day and age, never really grew up, and continued to expect everything to be "about him" for the duration of his life, even after the paparazzi of the day had moved on to other conquests and the court intrigues pitting Italians against Austrians left Mozart without steady income. In terms of the supposed rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, that's completely questionable, but it gives Amadeus a biting edge that brilliantly peeks behind the fašade of courtly manners and those who must maintain a modicum of social niceties even as jealousy is eating them up from the inside. Shaffer manages to pull a bit of a hat trick, though, by upping the ante from simple envy to brilliantly delineating a creative artist's recognition that another creator has superior innate talents, even as his behavior is less than admirable. While some people may ask God why bad things happen to good people, Salieri is instead left seething that the Deity could bestow such incredible gifts on a person so lewd and lascivious.
Amadeus made a temporary overnight sensation out of F. Murray Abraham, a former Fruit of the Loom dancing underwear commercial actor, who, if contemporary news reports are to be believed, began acting like something of an imperious Amadeus himself after his deserved Oscar win for Best Actor that year. Whatever his personal and professional peccadilloes, the fact remains that Abraham's Salieri is one of the great character creations of 1980s film, a diseased and despicable Machiavellian conspirer who manages (just barely at times) to cloak his nefarious aims in dripping sanctimony, even as he renounces God and, from his late in life institutionalization, proclaims himself the patron saint of mediocrity. Abraham bites into the role with all of the relish he can, and delivers one of the most compelling performances of the era. Also Oscar nominated that year was Hulce, who is hindered somewhat at having to portray the buffoon that Salieri views Mozart as being, but who nonetheless does astoundingly wonderful work giving the admittedly foppish and self-absorbed Wolfgang more than a little heart. The supporting cast is uniformly wonderful, including the superb Jeffrey Jones as Emperor Joseph II, who delivers (for this musician at least) the best line in the film, decrying Mozart's music as having "too many notes."
If the relationship between Mozart and Salieri is mostly the stuff of fancy, director Milos Forman lovingly recreates the span from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries with historically accurate gusto and amazing attention to detail. This is one of the most sumptuous physical productions ever brought to film, with gorgeous sets and costumes and beautiful cinematography by Miroslav OndřÝček. Forman brilliantly weaves a bevy of Czech locations into a sterling recreation of the Viennese court. Amadeus also brought Mozart back to 20th century album charts with the fanstastic soundtrack performances of Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields troupe, which gives some loving renditions of several Mozart warhorses throughout the film.
Amadeus may not be anything approaching the "truth" about these two supposed rivals, but in this case, with the invigorating writing of Shaffer, stunningly modulated performances of Abraham and Hulce, and the firm guiding hand of Forman, fiction is both stranger and more enticing than fact.
The good news is that Amadeus looks better than it ever has in this BD's VC-1 2.40:1 transfer. The bad news is there's some indication here of DNR, with that "waxy buildup" (at least it's not yellow) on skin surfaces especially. It's not the worst I've ever seen, but it lends a certain air of artificiality to the visual presentation at times. I also noticed some occasional haloing due to edge enhancement. If you can get past these anomalies, you have a solid visual presentation with excellent color and much sharper detail than on any previous DVD release. Contrast and black levels are generally good and consistent, and detail is quite impressive throughout.
This BD really shines in its upgraded Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. While the surround channels only really come alive during the musical moments, those moments are superbly rendered, with one of the most immersive soundscapes, musically speaking, I've experienced recently. A lot of care has been taken to carefully purpose various instruments around the soundscape, and the result is an completely envelloping experience that brings Mozart's at times manic contrapuntal lines incredible clarity. The surround channels pretty much cease to exist for the rest of the film, which nonetheless boasts excellent clarity and good directionality in the dialogue. There are also standard DD 5.1 mixes in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian, as well as subtitles in all of the soundtrack languages, as well as Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese and Swedish (what, no Esperanto?).
Amadeus arrives in a very handsome Digibook which includes the BD, a compilation CD as well as a digital copy DVD (housed in a separate sleeve stuck under the back cover paper). Inside the Digibook is a gorgeous 36 page color booklet with pictures, drawings and information about the film. There's also a heavy stock paper insert describing the CD's contents.
The BD itself features everything from the most recent Director's Cut 2 DVD release. The film is presented in that cut, which features about 20 extra minutes of footage from the theatrical release. Supplements include an excellent commentary by Forman and Shaffer, a 61 minute (SD) making of featurette, and the theatrical trailer.
Amadeus is a remarkable depiction of artistic ambition gone awry. In Mozart's case, his innate genius is squandered in a narcissistic lifestyle. In Salieri's case, his self doubt opens the door to the darkest elements of his soul, leading him down a path to spiritual and professional ruin. Whether or not these are "just the facts, ma'am" ultimately makes no real difference. Amadeus is a compelling work of art in and of itself, and must be appreciated on its own merits. Thankfully those merits are in abundance in this beautiful film, given a lavish BD release that belongs on any serious film buff's shelf. Amadeus is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet