Monday, February 21, 2011

Amadeus (1984): A Review

AMADEUS (1984)

Mad About Mozart...

The success of Amadeus isn't in the music, although few composers equal Mozart's glorious sounds. It isn't in the performances, although even the smallest parts are magnetic excellently directed by Milos Forman. It isn't in its sets and costumes, even if they are both appropriately lavish. It isn't even in Peter Schaffer's adaptation of his own play, though granted, it is a clever script, with wit and pathos all rolled together.

Amadeus succeeds not just because of all of those elements, but because in spite of the time and distance between Mozart's time and our own the themes within it still resonate. The ideas of blind jealousy, bitter revenge, between knowing how to live with what you have, and the sharp difference between genius and mere competence.

Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), former Court Composer at the Court of Austrian Emperor Joseph (Jeffrey Jones), is now an old, frail, bitter man who has attempted suicide after making the shocking confession of having killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Placed in a mental institution, he tells his tale to a priest (Richard Frank), explaining his bitterness towards the God Salieri once loved but whom he turned against after meeting his idol, Mozart.

Salieri had made a private pledge to God: in exchange for Salieri's piety and chastity, God would grant him the ability to create great works of music. Now, Salieri comes to the angry realization that the gifts he so longed for himself are in abundance of a little man Salieri considers unworthy: in his words, a lustful, boastful boy, a giggling, dirty-minded creature. Salieri is inflamed even more when Mozart's works soon overshadows his own, and now, believing himself screwed over by God, decides to take revenge on Him by doing everything in his power to destroy Mozart.

Mozart, rather oblivious to Salieri's treachery or to anything other than his work, continues to live beyond his means, with his wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) supportive but extremely worried about his increasingly erratic behavior and disorganized life. Mozart, a man who creates the most sublime music but who behaves like a child, becomes haunted by the memories of his stern father Leopold (Roy Dotrice). Salieri, realizing what emotional control Leopold has over Wolfgang even after death, decides on a shocking plan for revenge: secretly commission Mozart to write a Requiem Mass, then kill Mozart.

Perhaps Salieri had some hand in Mozart's death, or perhaps it was Mozart's own derelict living that did more damage than his jealous rival ever could. Salieri ends his 'confession' by acknowledging that while his own music is disappearing from the popular repertoire, his hated rival's is growing immortal.

Amadeus may frighten some people because it involves that terrifying subject: classical music. As is common knowledge, classical music is boring because it doesn't have any words. However, the film is instantly relate able because jealousy, especially when one feels morally or intellectually superior to someone else and still can't beat those one holds in contempt, is unfortunately a common emotion.

Shaffer in his play and screenplay taps into that human need to please God however He is perceived, and the hurt and anger when our best doesn't compare to the work of others. Take for example the musical montage when Salieri is presented with some of Mozart's work. He is first surprised to learn from Constanza that all the samples of her husband's works are first drafts, and once he examines them, he becomes shocked, humbled, and infuriated to see that Mozart's first drafts are perfect, to quote him, 'as if he'd merely taken dictation'.

Salieri's comprehension of Mozart's true genius, mixed with his shock that the gifts he longed for himself went to someone he thinks less 'worthy' along with his fury at this perceived 'betrayal' is beautifully put together in all aspects: Abraham's performance, Forman's direction, Michael Chandler & Nena Danevic's editing (with more work done by T.M. Christopher for the Director's Cut), and Sir Neville Marriner's musical direction of the various Mozart pieces.

In terms of the acting, there isn't one bad performance in the entire film. Let's go over some of the smaller roles first. Every minor character, from Jones' Emperor Joseph to Charles Kay's Count Orsini-Rosenberg (the Director of the National Opera who doesn't take to Mozart's music, complaining it had 'too many notes') to Roy Doltrice's Leopold Mozart all create in their few scenes whatever their character was suppose to be: dense for the Emperor, antagonistic for Orsini-Rosenberg, intimidating for Mozart, Senior.

More prominent roles, like Simon Callow as Mozart's friend and parodist Schikaneder and especially Berridge's Constanze are equal to the leads. Callow is someone who shows concern for Mozart but who also knows he has the talent to give him good music, and a hit for his own theater. Berridge is the consummate wife: loving, concerned, and shrewd about the people who surround her husband. Seeing her struggle with keeping Mozart working and coherent is especially heartbreaking. There's even an early appearance by a pre-Sex & The City Cynthia Nixon as a chambermaid at the Mozart house where she is completely unrecognizable from her Miranda.

Abraham's Salieri is a man who mixes self-pity, self-righteousness, and vindictiveness all at once. There is a scene in Amadeus that so brilliantly captures his performance. He has written a March of Welcome for Mozart when he is formally presented at Court, and in his naivete Mozart plays the March and decides to 'improve' on it. As Mozart begins to work on his variations, you can see Salieri seething with rage and humiliation but because he is in the presence of the Emperor and his colleagues, he is unable to say anything. Instead, he is trying to retain his composure when it's clear that his now-former idol has almost casually dismissed what he has lovingly and carefully worked on.

Anyone in Salieri's situation would feel the same, which is what makes both the film and Abraham's performance so good. The film, despite its rather grand setting, is relate able to our time and common human emotions, and here is the genius of Amadeus: the human drama and struggle between one man and his ideas of God, and the tragic cost that interpretation took.

Abraham is matched by Hulce's Mozart. Here, we too cannot believe that such glorious music comes from the same mind that is obsessed with sex and gutter humor. Hulce makes Wolfgang both naive, almost innocent, and extremely lewd. We laugh at his laugh, this high-pitched, almost infantile, giggle, that possesses him whenever anything strikes him as funny. As he so passionately argues to Emperor Joseph when trying to convince him to allow The Marriage of Figaro to be performed, "I am a vulgar man...but my music is not".

And oh, yes, what music, what divine music in Amadeus. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which I was fortunate enough to have visited, but I digress, envelop Amadeus with simply glorious music. The fear of writer Shaffer was that we would begin identifying a certain piece with Mozart only, another piece with Salieri, and so forth, that each character would have a specific theme.

However, director Forman steps over this by letting the music simply be. The music of Amadeus serves the story both when it is presented in the proper context, such as the stagings for The Abduction From the Seraglio, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, or Salieri's own opera Axur, but also within scenes where Mozart's music enhances the scene.

For example, at the party Wolfgang, Leopold, and Constanze attend where Salieri unexpectedly and unbeknownst to all of them also goes only to see himself ridiculed by Mozart has The Chorus of the Janissaries from The Abduction From the Seraglio as the music playing both when the Mozarts select their costumes and when they are Salieri are partaking in the festivities. It might not have been the music that was actually being played at the masked ball, but it fits so brilliantly that one is swept into the scene.

It has to be said that the music of Mozart is perhaps the third star of Amadeus, since it is so integral to the story. For myself, this is highlighted at the end of The Abduction From The Seralgio where everything comes together: Twyla Tharp's dance direction, Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography, Patrizia Von Brandenstein's art direction, Theodor Pistek's costumes, Milos Forman's directing of the actors both on stage and in the audience, and of course, that music!

In fact, everything in Amadeus truly came together to create one of those films where one never tires of watching over and over, not just for the lavishness of the film itself but for the true human drama within it.

There is one caveat I would have. If one has never seen Amadeus, I would recommend watching the theatrical version first rather than the Director's Cut. While I'm a stickler for seeing a film the way the director intended to be, and while Forman's cut gives a deeper understanding of how far Mozart fell and the rivalry that emerges between Salieri and Constanze, it might be a bit too much to take for someone coming into it with no background. The theatrical release works just fine, and if you love the film with a passion, then one could get the Director's Cut. A more casual viewer could do with just the original release.

Amadeus the film is like Mozart the composer: something to which many will aspire to, draw inspiration from, and enjoy forever. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:

Antonio Salieri:


1985 Best Picture: Out of Africa

As always, there are more Best Pictures and Essentials which I welcome one to look over.


  1. I went through a period, in the seventies, of listening to a lot of different composers, but I always returned to Mozart. When I listen to his piano concertos I am entrapped in a fantasy world of complex music that boggles the mind. It makes one wonder what could he have become if he had lived to be seventy or eighty. I have most of his music, on DVD, and CD and listen to it everyday.

    1. It is glorious music, and one wonders just what heights he would have reached if he'd been given long life.

      It only makes on appreciate what he did leave us.


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