Our review of Amadeus (Blu-Ray), published March 2nd, 2009, is also available.
The Man…The Music…The Madness…The Murder…The Motion Picture…
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, better known to us as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is in my opinion the finest composer to have ever lived. Some would say that his music is simplistic and does not utilize the full potential of the orchestra, but I prefer to see him as a master of the Classical style who wrote deceivingly simple yet stunningly beautiful melodies.
I can't recall if I saw Amadeus in the theater back in 1984, but my feeling is that I would not have, as I would have just turned fourteen and not have been interested in something so long or intellectually challenging (for an eighth grader) at that point in my youth. Yet somehow, somewhere in the next four years, I saw the movie, and it has had an influence on my life ever since. After seeing the film, I was, as many others were, impressed and moved by the displayed genius of Mozart. His music was enchanting and accessible, and it stayed with me as I entered college. We all know that a college dorm is not the quietest place around, and I realized soon enough that I would need some subtle background music to help me ignore the antics of my rambunctious corridor mates. I can still vividly recall the fine Autumn day when I trekked uptown to the Dubois bookstore and bought my first classical CD, a "Black Pearl" pressing (inexpensive but nice quality) of Mozart's Symphonies 40 and 41. Actually, that Mozart CD was the first CD I ever bought—ah, the memories! And ever since then, I have taken music courses, researched composers, lived with a budding musician, attended numerous symphonic concerts, and so forth. Classical music is now an important facet of my life, and I truly believe that I can attribute my love and appreciation of the form to this movie.
In an effort to minimize any potential confusion when reading this review, let me make a distinction between "classical" and "Classical." The non-capitalized form of the word refers to the entire genre of music termed "classical" and encompasses all of the symphonic music you think of when names such as Bach, Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven are uttered. As historians are apt to do, symphonic classical music is chronologically subdivided in an effort to differentiate the dominant style utilized at that time. As a result, we have the following: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern. Thus, the capitalized form of the word is referring to that specific form popularized and crafted by Mozart. (For the musicologists who may frequent our fair site, I am aware of Papa but don't want to complicate the discussion any further.)
Facts of the Case
On the page it looked…nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic.
Just a pulse: bassoons, basset horns…like a rusty squeezebox. And then,
suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note hanging there, unwavering. Until
a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight.
This film is based on the Broadway production "Amadeus" written by Peter Shaffer. After Milos Forman was dragged to a performance, he was immediately enamored of the story and began serious negotiations to make a film of the play. Peter Shaffer was brought on board to adapt his award-winning show for the big screen.
Amadeus is not entirely historically accurate. What is presented falls into four broad categories: (1) fact, (2) deduction, (3) speculation, and (4) apocryphal anecdotes. I will not be sorting every plot thread into a category, but I will occasionally annotate how certain sequences fall into these groups.
Surprisingly, the story is told entirely from the viewpoint of one of Mozart's contemporaries, Antonio Salieri—the court composer of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, AKA the musical king. It is Salieri who is the main character of the story, with Mozart playing a strong supporting role.
The tale begins in 1823 in Salieri's residence where we hear the elderly composer calling out in despair, "Mozart, forgive your assassin. I confess, I killed you!" Moments later, the man cuts his throat and wrists as he can no longer bear the guilt of having murdered the greatest composer of his time. As was done in the nineteenth century, Salieri is taken to a mental institution where his wounds are tended and a priest is sent to him to discover why he attempted suicide. In the presence of the young priest, Salieri begins to weave an intriguing, complicated, and heartrending tale of his life and how it intertwined with Mozart.
He was my idol. I can't think of a time when I didn't know his
Salieri unfolds a truly complex story, one that I cannot do justice to by attempting to describe it in full detail here. What the story purports is a tale of intense jealousy and rivalry between these two men. While Mozart was the superior composer, he lived with little notoriety or success; he was a pauper. Salieri, though less talented, was famous and lived a luxurious lifestyle, yet he was wholly envious of the talent of the younger man.
Kapellmeister Salieri is portrayed as a deeply religious man who believes that God gave him the need and desire to compose. It is his longing to want to write the best music possible in order to be able to sing the praises of God. He is content with his talents until he meets Mozart.
From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your
instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward
only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair,
unkind, I will block You. I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on
Earth as far as I am able.
It is a favorite historical speculation that there was indeed animosity between the two composers. There is scant evidence to confirm the veracity of this gossip. In actual letters that Mozart sent to his family and friends, there are allusions to a tumultuous relationship between the two composers, thus providing us with enough plausibility to create this fantastic tale.
As the story unfolds, we are shown a possible series of events of how Salieri's jealousy caused him to thwart Mozart's progress in Vienna. Using all of his cunning, intelligence, and hatred, Salieri plotted to humiliate and destroy Mozart. We are witness to Mozart's growth as an artist combined with the numerous events that blocked his rise to success. All the while, we are led to believe that Salieri was the mastermind of Mozart's failures. But though he was neither rich nor successful, there could be no denying that Mozart's musical genius would not be stopped.
Through many permutations and combinations, we arrive at a point where Salieri can no longer compete with Mozart, and he has derived his final plan for dealing with the irascible composer: murder. It's not quite that simple, for Salieri wants to use Mozart's death as the springboard for his own ultimate fame. Knowing that Mozart is truly the superior composer, Salieri masquerades himself and commissions Mozart to write a Requiem, a death Mass. It is Salieri's intent to unveil the Requiem at Mozart's funeral. He believes the immense beauty of the Mass will cause all of Vienna to weep at the newly found talent of Salieri, and that they will finally see that Salieri has been touched by God. And no one would be the wiser in knowing that Salieri stole the music from Mozart, or worse yet, killed Mozart for the music.
In the end, an amazing tale of deceit and treachery is played out between these two men. Is it possible that Salieri killed Mozart? Does Salieri end up with the Requiem? How much of this extraordinary tale is true?
As captivating as the story is, it is exceptionally unlikely that Salieri killed Mozart. In fact, it is believed that Mozart died from mercury poisoning. In their day, mercury was considered a curative for syphilis; unfortunately for Mozart, as we now believe, he had a bad liver, which could not properly dissipate mercury like a healthy organ. Thus, while it's a fascinating tale with a strong undercurrent of truth, their lives did not unfold in this manner.
This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I had
never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to
me I was hearing the voice of God.
There is serious debate on who truly commissioned the Requiem, for it is known that Mozart did not write this piece without encouragement. Was it Salieri, or someone else? That will probably never be known, though current thought is that Salieri played no part in the Requiem. Of greater mystery and debate is determining who completed the Mass, for Mozart died before completing the piece. Though the film purports Mozart as not having any pupils, it is widely believed that his last student, Sussmayer, completed the work at the behest of Constanze, Mozart's wife. This Requiem, Mozart's final work, is indeed yet another beautiful creation, but it falls short in comparison to his other works of the time.
But what is truly most tragic is Mozart's death. He was a man with immense talent who influenced and changed the course of music. At his death, he was a penniless man and was buried as one: another nameless body in a mass grave. His body is lost forever, one among many, but his music lives on.
Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and
the structure would fall.
I have been waiting for this day for years. Being an immense fan of Mozart and the movie, I believe the original version was the second disc I ever bought (second only because I wanted something loud and obnoxious to test out the new system), and I am so happy to finally see a re-release of this disc. As you may know, the original DVD was a flipper—just like a laserdisc, you had to get up and flip the DVD about halfway through the movie. DVDs were still in their infancy and putting a two and a half hour movie on one side of the disc was many months away. Thank goodness it's been re-released as a Director's Cut. This newly released disc sports an extended version of the film with an extra twenty minutes of footage, making this movie clock in at a healthy three hours!
Unlike the recent release of Star Trek II, the added footage here makes significant changes to the tapestry of the characters: interactions are drastically altered, subplots are revealed, additional obstacles are presented, and lines of dialogue connect more logically. The added footage is amazing, for I never expected such a dramatic enhancement to the story. You will be surprised at what was originally left on the cutting room floor. A question that could be proposed would be to ask which version of the film is better. That is actually a very tough question. After viewing Amadeus in its original form for the past eighteen years, I am very fond of the story and how it unfolds; it is something that I hold dear. Yet, the new plot developments are thought provoking and actually strengthen the entire supposition of the story. Thus, from that perspective, the new cut is better. Every new scene makes sense and does not feel unnecessary or forced.
Oh my! Amadeus has never looked so good or sounded so wonderful. The packaging states that this is a new digital video transfer with a remastered audio track. I believe it, and it makes sense considering twenty minutes of footage had to be reinserted into the film. For both tracks, I so wanted to label them as perfect; fortunately, they are.
The anamorphic transfer is truly marvelous. Colors are rich and vibrant, with solid black definition, sharp contrasts, and absolutely no transfer errors. That's amazing for such a long movie using only one side of the disc and remembering the inclusion of the new footage. Such a clear and realistic picture, you can see every fold and crinkle in the ornate costumes; you can see every tiny ornamentation in the lush scenery; and you can see every strand of hair in their fantastic wigs. I was momentarily frightened during the opening scene when Salieri is transported from his home to the mental institution. My first reaction was that the blacks were soft, but then I realized nothing was wrong and that everything was accurate. It was simply the fact that only natural light was used during the entire filming process that gave the night a softer feel.
Again, Mozart has never sounded better, and it is instantly obvious that the audio track has been remastered. You are truly encompassed by the music, which is how it should be as Mozart's music is the third main character in the film. Dialogue is crisp, clean, and clear from the center channel, the surrounds are used perfectly, and while the subwoofer is sparingly used, it comes to life when needed during a musical piece. The music. You just can't say enough about it. The music is accurate and lush. Sir Neville Marriner conducted such an inspired performance, which is superbly rendered on the disc, that millions have been moved to learn more about Mozart over the years. Listening to Mozart from a CD will forever more seem inferior.
Amadeus is a rare gem in Hollywood, for it is a quality movie with a difficult subject that was still able to cross over and appeal to the general public. And its excellence did not go unnoticed as it went on to win eight Oscars in 1984 including Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Writing, Best Costume, Best Art/Set Design, and Best Makeup. It may not be the leader of the pack in Oscar history, but it surely leads the list of my Oscar favorites. I agree with every Oscar that it won, for everything is done absolutely right in the film.
Milos Forman (Man On The Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) directed this film with finesse and love; it is a visual masterpiece. He knew that the material required only the best people working on it, and that is what he made happen. Not content with average, he spent hours upon hours cultivating every aspect of the film from writing to casting to design. There wasn't one step in the process where he wasn't intimately involved, working to ensure the high caliber of the production. He succeeded.
Every character in the movie is memorable, for each is remarkably personified by a gifted actor: F. Murray Abraham (Star Trek: Insurrection, Scarface) as Salieri, Tom Hulce (Animal House) as Mozart, Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as Emperor Joseph II, and so on. I literally could list every actor from the film and congratulate him or her for their achievement in this film. Simply said, the acting is without measure. When talking about the acting in Amadeus, the one thing that most people will mention is "the laugh." People often think that Tom went a bit overboard with Mozart's laugh, but they would be wrong. While we'll never know what it really sounded like, there is ample evidence stating how loud and shocking it was. No detail was overlooked in fleshing out the characters. And, I would be remiss without making special note of a favorite character of mine, the Baron Van Swieten (Jonathan Moore). I'm not sure why, but I have just always adored the performance of this very minor character. His manner and voice simply make him shine, practically stealing the spotlight from the principals.
But what good are talented actors unless they have an excellent script? It is remarkable how Peter Shaffer was able to weave such a fantastic tale from the source material; for, even beyond the four categories I listed earlier, the various biographies of Mozart present a wealth of inaccurate and conflicting information. Nonetheless, he was able to put it all together, add a touch of melodrama, and craft a superb story of genius, jealousy, intrigue, and music. It's a difficult combination, at best.
Being an avid fan of period pieces, I am, as always, in love with Prague—the city that time forgot. These days, we are aware that this city in the Czech Republic is a favored filming location for Hollywood studios. Back in the early '80s, this was not the case. A thorough scouting trip led the crew to this small city, which is an ideal spot for a movie needing an 18th or 19th century look, for there is little modernization—and what there is can be easily removed. As the cold war still existed and Prague was in a Communist state, it was extremely difficult to get permission to film there. Perseverance triumphed (with some friendly help of the mighty dollar) and Amadeus led the way to Prague's newfound glory. But it's the old glory that appeals to me. I love the style, the architecture, the richness, and the ornateness that can only come from those early days. Opulence exudes from each nook and cranny, and that can be seen in every scene in the movie. The sets and the locations are not only beautiful but also historically significant, as some scenes were filmed in actual venues where Mozart lived and worked.
In this two-disc Director's Cut, is there anything more we could want besides the spectacular transfers and the incredible new cut of the film? Of course! In addition to the original disc being a flipper, it contained a mostly pathetic assortment of bonus features and almost all of these features were text-based (and hard to read). While most of the information was common and dull, there were some interesting facts for one to learn. Additionally, there were two other non-text bonus features: the theatrical trailer and an isolated score track. While I would normally love the latter, I was extremely disappointed because it was only 2.0 Dolby Digital (unlike the 5.1 Dolby Digital full movie track) and because of the huge gaps of silence. All in all, the special features were exceptionally disappointing for a topic with such a wealth of additional information. In this new version, only three of the original bonus features made the move: the theatrical trailer, the cast and crew notes, and the awards listing. While the original bonus features were decidedly lacking, I must admit surprise that they were not ported to the new disc. I'm sure it would have been incredibly easy to do, and as you're about to find out, I'm fairly confident there's plenty of room left on the second disc. I can understand the need to drop the isolated score track, though, because of the expanded length of the movie and a new commentary track. I'm not sure why the cast and crew notes and the awards listing were transferred—besides an obvious means of self-congratulation—for they add nothing to the disc.
Before I go into detail on the commentary, I would first like to mention the other new bonus feature on the second disc: a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Amadeus. I want to talk about this well-crafted feature first because I watched it before listening to the commentary. If I had done it in reverse order, I believe my judgment would be quite different. To wit, this feature is quite wonderful. It is highly informative, thoroughly engrossing, and filled with insightful information on the entire process of making the movie. It was also a joy to have a chance to get some new (and old) interviews with the actors from the movie. After watching it, I felt it was perhaps one of the best documentaries I've ever seen on a DVD. The hour passed by far more quickly than I would have imagined.
I then listened to the commentary track with Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer; it was fortunate that I did watch the documentary first, as I wouldn't have known who was talking since they never introduced themselves. Much to my immense disappointment, the commentary track basically repeats all of the fascinating information from the making-of segment. Why would you simply rehash that information? Wasn't there anything else to talk about? Didn't you realize you said all of this for the interviews for the other piece? Of course, they do offer some new pieces of information, but it is extremely rare when that occurs. And, even worse, the two get engrossed in the movie leading to prolonged spans of silence. I'm sure I would have found this track much better if I had not already watched the documentary. Thus, together, the two of them steal each other's power.
Every diamond has its flaw, and Amadeus' continue to be the continued lack of thorough and significant special features. Granted, this new version is a solid step in the right direction, but it's obvious that no one gave any consideration to providing additional historical information to flesh out the details of the film. There are dozens upon dozens of books about Mozart, Salieri, and classical music as a whole, and yet no bonus information on the disc. Such a shame.
All in all, this is a perfect movie with imperfect bonus features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The original Titanic: a long, bloated monstrosity of a movie that just keeps going and going. Did we really have to suffer through what feels like every single detail of their lives? And now you add even more footage to this beast and expect me to stay awake? Man, I hate classical music!
Seeing how fond I am of this film, I was surely tempted not to put anything in the rebuttal section, but I felt it would be a slight disservice as there are individuals who might not appreciate the delights of this film.
In the beginning, it was simply the engaging story that captivated me. Today, it's the story and the truth of the real Mozart. It's the highly organized facet of my personality that relates to Mozart, for it's his embodiment and advancement of the Classical form with its inherent structure that truly appeals to me. How Mozart was able to divine over six hundred pieces of music in less than thirty years, spanning all types of ensembles and beyond (including chimes for a cuckoo clock!), is simply mind-boggling. But to consider how entrancing and exquisite they are and how they've maintained that splendor for over two hundred years, it is simply amazing. Amadeus is a true testimony to the composer's genius.
This movie is without any doubt something that should be in your collection. From whatever point of view you wish to take, the excellent transfers, the superb acting, the luscious score, the magnificent direction, or the engaging story, buy this movie. Don't let the subject matter or the length deter you. You will not be disappointed.
All charges are summarily dismissed. This movie is simply marvelous and should be viewed by everyone. It will not only open your eyes to the beauty of classical music, but it is also an exceptional display of incomparable storytelling, acting, and direction.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Director Milos Forman and Writer Peter Shaffer
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