Warner Bros. // 1984 // 180 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // March 2nd, 2009
"That was God laughing at me, through that obscene giggle..."
Amadeus won eight Academy Awards in 1985, including Best Picture and Best Actor, and was ranked fifty-third on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the hundred best American films of all time. In AFI's 2007 list, Amadeus was left out altogether. So is the movie really aging poorly, or does its new release on Blu-ray validate it as a modern classic?
Based on Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus is the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce, Animal House), the great eighteenth-century composer, and his rival, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, Last Action Hero). Salieri is an established court composer, and believes he has achieved this status through years of hard work, sacrifice, and prayer. When he meets the young upstart Mozart, who is loud, lecherous, and more talented than any composer in Europe, Salieri seethes. Why should Mozart -- the little twerp -- be blessed with more talent than himself?
Salieri's anger is so strong he begins questioning the will of God and decides to openly thwart it. How? By killing God's prodigy, Mozart.
I should note this release is the director's cut of Amadeus, which adds about 20 minutes and brings the film's running time to nearly three hours. There is no option to watch the original theatrical cut, which is a drag. Like most people who will end up purchasing this disc, I'm a fan of Amadeus and was looking forward to seeing (and hearing) the film on Blu-ray. However, there's now no way I can see that movie on Blu-ray. First George Lucas tampers with Star Wars, now Milos Foreman is tampering with Amadeus. What is it with these directors tampering with classics, anyway? Why doesn't Foreman tamper with one of his lesser works, like Man on the Moon?
I know the extra 20 minutes won't be a dealbreaker for most people -- and they shouldn't -- but they are rankling. The extra scenes add little to the plot. Only one, between Salieri and Mozart's wife, provides any further insight; the rest only re-emphasize points that were already made in the original cut. When a film is already 160 minutes, those 20 extra minutes do slow the movie down.
That said, Amadeus, director's cut or not, is still a great film. As most fans know, this story of jealousy and murder between Mozart and Salieri is, for the most part, apocryphal. There had been rumors that on his deathbed Salieri confessed to murdering Mozart, but that seems to have been debunked by historians. In fact, the two seemed to have had a cordial relationship. In addition, it turns out Salieri was not quite the mediocrity the film portrays him as. Essentially, Amadeus as history is lacking. For some, the amount of artistic license Shaffer takes in his play (and screenplay) compromise the film. While I'm sympathetic to that argument, I still think Amadeus is one of the best American films of the last quarter century.
What helps me overlook the movie's loose adherence to historical fact is its strict adherence to human nature. In a way, Salieri represents the best of humanity, in that he sacrifices and works tirelessly to achieve noble goals. But then, he also represents much of the worst of humanity: his jealousy and vindictiveness will come off as nasty, but understandable, emotions the audience. The fact of the matter is, most of us aren't Mozarts in our respective fields. We all attempt, with varying amounts of effort, to succeed, but we can all probably point to at least one person who's more talented than us with less effort -- and we probably hate that person. As he so much admits in the film's final scene, Salieri has become the poster boy for this sort of jealousy: the patron saint of mediocrity.
Amadeus is not only a gorgeous period film with a beautiful soundtrack or a fascinating story of vengeance, but also a morality play in which the audience members likely finds themselves with far more in common with the villain than the hero. This elevates the film over so many other contemporary movies, which seem intent on portraying virtue as the default human condition, and evil as otherworldly and alien. This is a striking film, rich and profound, and deserves a sizable audience in the twenty-first century.
However, the most pertinent question is, is it worth the upgrade to Blu-ray? Unfortunately, the answer has to be a muddled maybe. As one would expect, the soundtrack sounds glorious. There are several scenes of Mozart conducting his operas (and one of Salieri as well), and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 beautifully showcases the music -- the strings, the brass, the drums, and the voices -- with amazing precision. This is not only great for one's aural pleasure, but helps the story by nearly replicating what Salieri was hearing in those cavernous halls; and helps explain why it drove him to rage.
The picture is not nearly as impressive as the sound; but for a film that is over a quarter-century old, it's certainly acceptable. The film is clear and the detail is fine, but the dark colors tend to bleed a little into featureless black while the daytime scenes seem a tad washed out. It probably didn't help that Foreman chose to shoot the film entirely with natural light, but then again, in a period piece, these slightly faded colors and oversaturation aren't quite as jarring. Also, I've seen Amadeus in just about every incarnation, from VHS to laserdisc to DVD, and this is a clear, if not overly impressive, upgrade.
There are some nice extras included in this Blu-ray package as well. In addition to the movie, there's an extra disc of Mozart's music, which is especially cool for casual classical music fans like me looking for a gateway into the genre. There is also a third disc with a digital copy of the film. This is a welcome special feature, but this digital copy is not compatible with iTunes (boo! hiss!). The supplements on the main disc include an hour-long featurette, a commentary track with Shaffer and Foreman, and an original theatrical trailer. These features were all available on the two-disc Amadeus DVD set. With many Blu-rays squeezing dozens of filler extras onto the disc, Amadeus is a welcome break, with few extras, but all substance. The commentary track is especially interesting, with the Mozart scholar Shaffer providing much background information to the film.
So, the disc has good picture and great sound, as well as a fine collection of extras, but those beguiling twenty additional minutes shouldn't be here, or should at least be optional. There are regular DVDs of the original theatrical cut you can purchase -- which is exactly what fans of the film will probably have to do. This is a shame, because upgrading to Blu-ray shouldn't necessitate keeping the old DVDs around as well.
For fans of Amadeus, the Blu-ray release is a mixed blessing. It's tough to overlook the lack of the original theatrical cut which introduced the film to most of us. Let's hope this doesn't turn into another Star Wars situation, where the tweaked version of a beloved film becomes the standard for future generations.
Guilty of tweaking a classic with no chance for redress.
Review content copyright © 2009 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio CD
* Digital Copy