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Czech director Milos Forman hit the jackpot with 1984's Amadeus, coming up with a movie that pleased almost everybody and walked away with eight Oscars including best picture. The highly entertaining musical biography makes the remote world of the 18th century composer highly accessible to modern audiences.
Interestingly, the movie has earned the respect of music professionals even though it plays fast and loose with many basic facts about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Adapting his own play, Peter Shaffer (Equus) subordinates history to his basic themes: the difference between talent and genius, and the tragedy that results when jealousy and creativity collide.
With the backing of producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The English Patient), Forman returned to his home country of Czechoslovakia for location work on Amadeus, taking with him with a cast composed largely of Americans. Familiar faces Jeffrey Jones and Kenneth McMillan play the kind of parts usually reserved for English actors.
The two leading roles introduced actors F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce to a wide audience. Abraham is Antonio Salieri, official composer to the court of Emperor Joseph II (Jones). Salieri feels threatened by the new court favorite Mozart (Tom Hulce). A middling talent grateful for his position, Salieri is horrified by Mozart's manners and intimidated by his seemingly effortless mastery of everything difficult in music. Worse yet, Mozart is a vulgarian, an impulsive free spirit who makes crude jokes and chases his future wife right in the Emperor's palace, climbing under the pastry tables. Mozart giggles in sober company and speaks his mind freely when his opinion is asked. The young composer dismisses a Salieri composition in the Emperor's presence, and then sits down at the keyboard and instantly improves upon it. Humiliated, Salieri despairs that his dreams of personal recognition and immortality may be only illusions. Mozart's brilliance threatens to push him into the shadows.
Screenwriter Shaffer uses the lifelong conflict of the two composers to tell a story that anyone in a professional social situation can identify with. Salieri labors behind the scenes to discredit Mozart in the eyes of the court. He seizes opportunities offered in Mozart's lack of tact and disinterest in bureaucratic and musical conventions. Mozart challenges the Emperor's arbitrary ideas about music, that dictate that operas must be sung in Italian, and cannot contain ballets. Salieri employs snitches and spies to place obstacles in Mozart's career path.
By contrast, Mozart is far too positive a personality to suspect enemy action. Only his enormous talent insures that he survives Salieri's tricks, such as spreading gossip that the young composer molests his musical students. As teaching is one of the few ways composers can make a living, Mozart spends most of his career in poverty. He's not helped by a taste for extravagant living. His wife Costanze (Elizabeth Berridge) tries to protect Wolfgang's interests but often just makes things worse. She goes to Salieri for help, only making it easier for the schemer to take advantage.
Salieri spends years undermining the composer's career, dying inside each time Mozart turns disaster into triumph. He never realizes that his endless schemes have turned him into an obsessed monster. According to history, no such murderous competition ever ensued between the two composers, who may have been rivals on some level but are known to have collaborated harmoniously. Mozart allegedly took composition lessons from Salieri, poking holes in the idea that the older man's work was mediocre. But these exaggerations don't negate the spirit of Shaffer's drama.
What Amadeus has going for it that most musical biographies lack, is its musical dimension. Those of us who don't know a cantata from a cantaloupe are impressed when the young Mozart effortlessly whips up a stunning variation on a short Salieri piano piece. His spontaneous improvisation yields a musical delight that an ordinary composer might beat his brains out to produce. Amadeus gives us the idea that Mozart's music bursts from his head in multiple levels all at once, orchestrations intact, and that the real difficulty is getting it all down on paper for others to read. The first time Salieri picks up a page of a Mozart draft composition, he immediately recognizes genius far above his own abilities.
I remember a pleasant biography that shows Johann Strauss inventing a famous waltz by listening to birds tweet during a pleasant carriage ride. After Johann hums a couple of bars and smiles, the MGM movie skillfully segues into a scene where the composer's inamorata sings ecstatically as she waltzes to the finished composition. It's beautiful, but it hasn't much to do with reality. Too many musical bios trivialize the nature of creativity in this way. 1
Instead of hitting us over the head every few minutes with another of "Mozart's Greatest Hits", Amadeus concentrates on three or four career highlights. As we see "The Marriage of Figaro" staged, we realize a number of things about classical music of this era that they forgot to tell us in school. First, Europe's royals sponsor the orchestras and operas and control what's performed. Should a composer's work be disliked, there's nowhere else to turn. If the Emperor doesn't personally come down to the theater to meddle, his interfering toadies and "experts" will gum up the works. Second, this is the 1700's, when hearing a chorus in a cathedral was a truly transcendent experience. Ordinary citizens were surely convinced that God communicated through music. A giant royal opera presentation was the greatest show on earth, a visual and aural feast for the senses. Thirdly, in the case of Mozart, some of his greatest works were performed only a few times. The Emperor might become bored, or he might be swayed by whisper campaigns promoting the illusion that the shows were unpopular.
Amadeus is visually impressive throughout, but the opera sequences are particularly effective in conveying the powerful illusions of stagecraft. Sophisticated lighting tricks produce startlingly expressive effects. Capping the show is one of the composer's last works, the wild fantasy "The Magic Flute". But we mostly remember Mozart as a genius who suffers and doesn't know why. One day he's going crazy at a party, satirizing the styles of other composers and playing the piano while being suspended upside down. The next day, Mozart must beg for money from noblemen who treat him like a complete lowlife.
Director Forman is clearly happy to be working again in Czechoslovakia; the supporting cast must include twenty or thirty Czech opera singers and actors. Twyla Tharpe did choreography for Forman on Hair. We wonder if her work is in any way authentic to the period, but it really doesn't matter. Miroslav Ondricek's camera makes the opera sequences look marvelous, and helps us accept the notion of all these grown men spending their waking hours wearing elaborate wigs. Tom Hulce tries on a trio of fright wigs in day-glo colors, and is so enchanted by them that he wishes he had three heads! The film's key design art is a mysterious black-cloaked figure in a strange helmet. He's a character from "Don Giovanni" modeled on Mozart's own father Leopold (Roy Dotrice), who wears a similar outfit for a wild costume bash.
Warner Home Video's stunning Blu-ray of Amadeus finds an entire new level of detail in the beautiful color images. This Director's Cut is twenty minutes longer than the original theatrical version. The added material (re-incorporated in 2002) includes scenes of Mozart dealing with students and Constanze's attempts to influence Salieri into helping her husband. Some fans of the film regret the absence of the original cut, in the belief that the added material is unnecessary and dulls the impact of the main conflict between the two composers.
The audio is presented in several English configurations as well as 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish, German and Italian. Warners info block erroneously describes the 1080p Blu-ray image as "16x9"; a term that describes not a screen shape, but the squeezed-for-widescreen standard DVD format.
The disc features prime input from director Forman and writer Peter Shaffer, starting with a full-length commentary. The long Making of Amadeus documentary is a comprehensive account of the entire project, using interviews with all the main actors. Forman remembers telling his producer as they crossed the border into Czechoslovakia, "Forget all logic; it doesn't exist here." F. Murray Abraham is proud of his most prestigious film role, and Tom Hulce has plenty of memories of the filming experience. We also hear about the circumstances that brought the role of Costanze to Elizabeth Berridge just before filming commenced. Simon Callow, who plays the showman who pushes our hero to complete "The Magic Flute", originated the role of Mozart in London at the Royal National Theater.
A trailer is included, along with a music CD compilation of Mozart cues. Warners' popular "little book" packaging format contains a colorful booklet that gives a quick overview of the film while examining some of its fanciful notions of history. There's no historical evidence to suggest that Salieri ever conspired to murder Mozart.
Affixed to the back cover of the package is a Digital Cut of the movie, for those who would like to download it onto their (PC only) computers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I've always imagined an alternate version of that scene from The Great Waltz. The big musical number finishes normally, and we return to the composer back in the carriage. He's excited that he's hit upon a great melody: the glorious miracle of the finished product has only been a flash forward. Just as Strauss thinks he's internalized the key melody, he's interrupted by some drunken shepherds singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall", and the new song slips his mind. Oh, well.
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