by David Cornelius
There’s a scene late in “Amadeus” in which Mozart, drained from illness and overwork, is comforted by his wife. The composer is unshaven, hair in a wreck, his mind not entirely up to speed. It’s here, in this moment, that it becomes clear that “Amadeus” is setting up Mozart as rock star. Burned out on too much fame, too much genius, and too much pressure, this tale of a 18th century composer could very well be the tale of Jim Morrison, Ray Charles, Kurt Cobain, Elvis.Or maybe even Michael Jackson. Both men were pressured at an extremely young age by overbearing fathers to showcase their talents; both men, then, grew up with a stunted world view, trapped in a state of semi-permanent immaturity. There are differences, of course (Mozart was never this dangerously insane), but the notions are the same: celebrity grown from genius mixed with adulthood underdeveloped thanks to fame.
"Rock me... oh, never mind."
Tom Hulce’s interpretation of the role is a marvel. Our introduction to the character sets up everything we need to know. Here is a genius beyond words - he can even speak backwards, fluently, without any preparation - yet all he wants is to chase some tail, make fart jokes, and generally be a manchild. His laugh, most of all, tells us everything, a loony, high-pitched cackle that could only come from a person lacking any sense of self-restraint.
Director Milos Forman previously helmed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Hair,” and he later went on to make “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and the Andy Kaufman biopic “Man On the Moon.” And the theme continues here, in “Amadeus.” Forman’s movies deal with punks, rebels, outsiders. He positions Mozart as a punk rocker (dig that pink wig!) unwilling to be bound by the limitations of convention. It’s a bold move to paint an icon this way (indeed, most of the film is fairly dirty and grimy, creating more realism than romanticized biography), and it works splendidly. Forman once again shows us the story of an outlaw.
And yet “Amadeus” isn’t really Mozart’s story. The film begins and ends with Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), sent to an insane asylum following a suicide attempt. He has been haunted for years, you see, by the memory of Mozart; Salieri claims to have murdered him.
It’s through Salieri’s eyes that we meet the title character, and it’s through Salieri’s eyes that we follow his story. We flash back to a time when Salieri was serving as court composer to a dopey emperor (Jeffrey Jones); just as the emperor is a man with a “tin ear,” so Salieri is a composer with enough talent to land the job but not enough to make it memorable. Salieri, the musician, is pedestrian, competent, mediocre.
But he knows music far better than he can create it, which leads to his dreadful realization that Mozart, for all his foolish behavior, is nothing less than a genius. What grows is both admiration and jealousy. Salieri remembers an old oath he made to God, asking to be granted talent, for which he will gladly live a chaste life. The composer lived up to his end of the bargain, but then sensed in God a cruelness: the “voice of God” was given instead to this nasty little pervert.
Watching Abraham at work here is like watching a master musician, to make a lame analogy. The actor brings out the spite that burns to the very core of the character, the hateful spittings that lead a man to obsession. As both old Salieri and young, Abraham brings remarkable depths to his role. (Between Abraham, Hulce, Jones, and Elizabeth Berridge, playing Mozart’s wife, “Amadeus” is on the short list of the best casted, best acted films ever made.)
Despite all the fine acting, despite all the magnificent drama from writer Peter Shaffer (who adapted his own stage play), the main ingredient in “Amadeus” is the music. Mozart’s overwhelming music is the first and last things we hear in this film, and throughout, it washes over the viewer. Film editors are often congratulated for their work joining images; here, the team of Michael Chandler, Nena Danevic, and Michael Magill are to also be praised for their expert handling of where and how to place Mozart’s compositions.
There’s a gimmick used here that’s simply heavenly. Whenever we see Salieri reading sheet music, we begin to hear the music play on the soundtrack, as if we are inside the character’s head, hearing him decipher the written notes. It is this editing choice that puts us squarely in the mind of an artist.
The film’s most stirring moment comes when acting and music meet head on. Mozart lay bedridden, consumed by illness after having fainted during one performance. Salieri, who has been driving him mad by secretly commissioning a new symphony despite his rival’s already dangerous workload, has helped him home. And now the two begin work on Mozart’s masterpiece, the “Requiem.” Mozart dictates the notes, Salieri follows along, putting them to paper. The villain claims to have darker motives (he hopes to publish the work as his own), and yet one can’t help but think he’s actually helping out entirely out of artistic needs - who could possibly refuse such a powerful work from being completed? (The scene helps lighten our view of Salieri, if not for his intentions, then at least for the fact that despite his “mediocrity” as a musician, he’s still able to hold his own with his better.)
In 2002, Warner Bros. released a director’s cut of the film, reinserting twenty minutes of cut footage back into the movie. These are fine scenes, to be sure, but to be honest, both versions work, with neither the theatrical or the director’s cut being definitely better or worse. (The longer version adds a pinch of depth, but it’s nothing that you’ll feel is missing from the 1984 edition.) This makes it one of those rare director’s cuts that doesn’t diminish the original film, nor does it embarrass it.Whichever version you choose, you’re in for a treat. “Amadeus” is a masterful combination of acting and storytelling, of sight and sound, of cinema and soundtrack. It is an awesome moviemaking feat, an inspired production that’s impressed viewers for two decades now, and will most certainly impress them for many more to come.
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originally posted: 03/01/05 15:37:00