Amadeus A Review by Jordan Lyndell-Lees
1984. Directed by Milos Forman
Review by Jordan Lyndell-Lees
“I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an absolute beauty…”
When F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri speaks these words, transported in pure, unadulterated ecstasy, he is not telling the audience how they should feel. He’s putting into words how they already do feel, after the utter sublime perfection of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music is put on display, beautiful and terrible to behold. An audial manifestation of what Galadriel would have been with The Ring, perhaps. We travel with Salieri on that journey and witness Mozart’s titanic majesty with wonder and awe. But the film isn’t really about Mozart and perhaps that’s why, of all the biopics of musical giants, this one succeeds the most magnificently.
Amadeus isn’t about Amadeus. It’s about Salieri. And, as it turns out, we are Salieri. We all have the capacity to understand Mozart’s greatness, but not the ability to equal it, and we understand Salieri’s fury and his sense of betrayal as he is left, impotent, listening to the great one’s eternal, vulgar laughter.
In 1984, Milos Forman’s Amadeus slid nearly unnoticed through the box office, never breaking the top five, only to storm the Academy Awards with eleven nominations, including double Best Actor nods for Tom Hulce and Abraham as Mozart and Salieri. The film won eight, with Abraham’s villain beating Hulce’s rockstar take on Wolfie.
So this is all fascinating stuff and clearly the film is acclaimed, but it doesn’t really answer the question of why I watched this film literally every day for a year in 1987 (I had a lot of time as a teen) nor why it still never fails to thrill and move me to this day. At one point, when criticized on the common nature of his libretto for The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart asks “Who wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules?” And he’s damned right.
This three hour epic about a classical music legend is, at its core, the story of very human, flawed people. Salieri is a vainglorious, thieving man, Mozart is a brooding child with a fondness for scatological humor, and indeed, every other character is imbued with an indelible humanity and realism that reminds the viewer at every turn that perfection exists right alongside fart jokes and lewdness.
The film was adapted from Peter Shaffer’s play, which is as brooding and pregnant of symbolism as the rest of his work. Forman, the Director of Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair, might have seemed a strange choice for Shaffer’s work, but it’s a perfect translation to the big screen, taking Shaffer’s semantic overdrive and softening it to a rock opera. In retrospect it’s obvious, as a film about Mozart’s work is the perfect “realistic musical”; it’s absolutely believable that these characters break out into song. They’ve got Don Giovanni and Figaro to sing, after all.
And sing, they do, in remarkable performances of Mozart’s concert music and opera, including a fantastical production of Don Giovanni by Twyla Tharp that I only wish was realized in full on stage. The brilliance of Shaffer’s elision between the vengeful ghost haunting Don Giovanni and the oppressive memory of Mozart’s father is realized in the film by what are essentially stage-tricks; misdirection and well placed sound cues. In the end, Leopold is just as terrifying to us as he is to his son.
Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography is a revelation, taking modern Prague and effortlessly transforming it into late 18th century Vienna. The tableaux of Enlightenment Viennese party life are like wig-and-stocking-set versions of a Glam Metal after-party. The score, newly recorded by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St-Martin-By-The-Fields (is there a more English sounding orchestra name?) is glorious, and the costuming and set design is revelatory. And the performances?
Mozart and Salieri are accompanied in some of the film’s best scenes by Emperor Joseph II and his musical cronies. Jeffrey Jones in particular, steals every scene he’s in with his inevitable rejoinder, “Well …. There it is.” Elizabeth Berridge is endearing and infuriating as Mozart’s wife, Constanze (watch the Director’s cut for a welcome expansion of her character and a dramatic redoubling of Salieri’s smarm). In the end, though, the film belongs to Hulce and Abraham, who have created characters of enduring complexity in the two rival composers.
The rift between them is developed gradually over the course of the movie, widening with each new masterpiece Mozart looses upon the world. Abraham deftly manages the extended narration of his own spiraling madness, making it serve the story instead of obscuring it. The extended finale sequence wherein Salieri helps Mozart by taking dictation of the dying composer’s final work is as nail-biting as the greatest chase sequence, while being nearly unparalleled in its intimacy. Indeed, Berridge reacts upon finding them together much as a wife would react coming upon her husband in bed with the babysitter.
And then Mozart dies.
In a lesser film, the overwrought, rainy funeral would be the grand climax of the film. Scored by the literal last notes Mozart wrote in his life, the scene plays out with grandeur and pathos and obsessively self-conscious gravity, punctuated by a shatteringly loud AAAAAAAMMEEEEEEEEN from the choir as Mozart’s body is consigned to his pauper’s grave. A lesser film would end there, perhaps with a title card detailing how many symphonies and operas he wrote, or how many records of Mozart have been sold.
But this story isn’t about Mozart, we must remember. It is about Salieri.
It is about us.
We’re ripped back to Salieri in the insane asylum, gleefully telling a priest of Mozart’s death. Grinning as he admits his own imperfections. His last lines spoken to the priest, but not really; truly they are for the audience. For all of us, the mediocre, for whom he is the patron saint. As he promises to absolve us of our own inefficiencies, he is wheeled away for a sponge bath to the gentle sounds of a Mozart Concerto, punctuated one last time by Hulce’s guttering, hysterical laughter.
Perfection. Masterpieces. They exist in the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and in films like this. And Forman has shown us that the creatures who are responsible are just as human, just as vulgar, just as … mediocre as we.
Seventy-four viewings has not been enough. I’m going to go watch it again now.
Well …. There it is.