Amadeus: Forman’s Take On the Best Ever

When it comes to music, that’s a subject in which I, admittedly know very little. Sure, I can tell you the difference between a quarter note and a whole note, but I can’t tell you much more than the very basics of it.

 

That does not mean, however, that I cannot appreciate it. I have such an affinity for music, for example, that it’s a chore to answer the simple question, “what kind of music do you like?” I love anything that catches my ear.

 

I also have a fondness for those that can compose it. I’m only reactionary when it comes to music. I cannot envision it the same way I can what this blog might say, or what snarky Instagram caption I might use. Composing music is something that is so incredibly foreign to me that I can scarcely understand it.

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That’s why when it comes to great composers of yesteryear, I’m automatically intrigued. One of those was the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the late 18th century child music prodigy. His life story happens to be the subject of this week’s film, Milos Forman’s 1984 fantastic Amadeus.

 

The film is about Mozart’s (who’s played by Tom Hulce)  life through the eyes of his greatest admirer and enemy, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). But it also features a fight for the future of music, and a man’s slow decline into bitterness. Forman’s second Best Picture winner is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and that’s probably saying something.

 

My girlfriend, Laci, watched this movie with me and our mouths were agape the whole time. What a force of narrative storytelling, acting prowess, and great movie making.

 

Now, for the rest of the movie:

 

Plot

 

The movie begins with a much older Salieri trying to commit suicide in his home. When he’s taken to the hospital (it’s really a sanitarium) to heal, he’s visited by a priest who hopes to help Salieri ease his mind before death. Salieri quickly takes over the conversation and begins asking the young priest about his musical background, quizzing him if he’s heard particular pieces that Salieri composed. When the priest isn’t familiar with Salieri’s work, he then begins to play Mozart, which the priest is familiar.

 

Gradually, Salieri seems to come alive, and he tells the story of his idolatry, hatred, and jealousy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the genius 18th-century German composer. Throughout the 180-minute run-time (I had to watch the R-rated director’s cut as it was the only version I could find. The original release was a PG-rated 161-minute film) of the film, Salieri recounts his efforts to befriend, torment, and eventually, help the young Mozart. Along the way, we’re treated to an incredible look into the life of a genius and what genius does to those around him/her.

 

But it also gives us an idea into the kind of tortured genius Mozart actually was. He’s constantly looked down upon and despised by Vienna’s “high-class music” composers, even though those outside the music circle love his work. He’s under the thumb of the relentless expectations of his father who continues to pester Mozart after his death.

 

Amadeus features a plot structure that we haven’t really seen in this blog since Slumdog Millionaire: the flashback. For about 95% of the movie, we’re looking back at Salieri’s life through the eyes of a much younger composer. The flashbacks in Amadeus jump forward and backwards in time so flawlessly, but also so suddenly, that it gives me chills just thinking about the very idea of them. I love the flashback, but that doesn’t mean that they’re for every movie or story. They can be tricky to pull off, which makes this film that much better.

 

Additionally, this narrative is also compelling because you’re introduced to the villain, Salieri, first and you see the past as the way he saw it. This forces us, the audience to think for ourselves. Normally, the point of view is the hero’s. But not Amadeus. We have to make the conscious decision not to like Salieri because his actions tell us he is a big fat jerk, not because the plot frames him to be one. 1.

 

Writing/Dialogue

As I mentioned above, Amadeus is our second of two films to win Best Picture to be directed by Milos Forman. Just like last week’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus is based on a different piece of intellectual property, this time it’s a play of the same name by Peter Shaffer. Shaffer also wrote the screenplay, and he won Best Adapted Screenplay for his work.

 

Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this film featured a lot of dialogue that was full of conflict. Again, the dialogue drove the action, not the other way around.

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But more than that, though, Amadeus was as beautifully written as any of Mozart’s symphonies. The dialogue is “trimmed” to perfection. But it’s more than that when it comes to this film; the writing style changes depending on when the characters are speaking. When we’re in a flashback, and the younger men are speaking, the story unfolds itself in a very argumentative and conflict-driven way. When the elderly Salieri is speaking, the language is more poetic. It’s almost like he’s rehearsed the telling of his side of the story before. His decades of bitterness comes out in some interesting ways, including him turning his back on God and religion. He tells the priest, “There is no God of mercy, Father. There is only a God of torture.” Such poetic monologues, combined with the confrontational conversations in the flashback, kept me intrigued during the whole of the film. 1.

 

Sound

Being that it’s a movie about a composer, the score was an obvious major character. The sound was so major that Amadeus won Best Sound.

 

When it comes to the music for the film, the score came from the film’s namesake: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This film features mostly pieces from Mozart. Therefore, it didn’t qualify for the Best Original Score Oscar. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t brilliant, though. The film takes place in the latter half of the 18th century and, naturally, the music fits the setting. But, the incredible depth and complexity of the pieces themselves, a Mozart calling card of sorts, only adds depth to each and every scene.

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Not only that, the pieces selected were the perfect choices to set the tone of each of the scenes. Happy or intense, it didn’t matter. Mozart had a piece for that.

 

Finally, perhaps the most brilliant part of the whole approach to sound in the film was how it was used to track Mozart’s stream of thought. It stands to reason that the inner workings of a musical prodigy would have music playing in his head at all times. At some points when Mozart would have inspirations, there would be music. You only knew that it’s the music inside Mozart’s head playing when he’d be interrupted, and the music would stop. This helped me get into Mozart’s head and listen to pure musical genius first-hand. 1.

 

Set Design

Taking place in Vienna, Austria in the latter half of the 18th Century, Amadeus has literally the most beautiful set that I’ve ever seen. It also won the Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Makeup Oscars in 1984.

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Shot in Prague and throughout the Czech Republic, as well as the Estates Theatre in Prague (where some Mozart pieces debuted), the set as a whole was relentlessly committed to its time. From the powdered wigs to the outlandish dresses, the set as a whole was just so damn beautiful. Amadeus was not a small-scale movie like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but rather a large-scale, grandiose, and very expensive, epic. There was no stone unturned, or, as John Hammond would say, the movie “spared no expense.” 1.

 

Cinematography

Director of Photography Miroslav Ondricek received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for Amadeus, one of the film’s 11 total nominations.

 

Like I said in the section above, this movie was impressive in its scope. But it’s presentation is very, very artsy, particularly in its use of colors. It’s almost like someone turned the saturation way up and left it there. I was mesmerized.

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Additionally, the film was brilliant with its overall balance of subjects. Let me explain: a shot can be just as artistic with a bunch of stuff in the frame versus a very stark and basic shot. These series of scenes from early in the film demonstrates this idea of balance. There are many shots with lots of actors or set pieces in the frame. But, there are some with just the old Salieri, too. From this busy and complex, to the simple, the composition of the shots keep your eye engaged and keep you from getting bored. To help distinguish the main actors in the complex shots, Ondricek chooses to move the camera in dynamic ways with the focus of the scene. So even though the shots are quite busy, the addition of smart camera movements helps you the audience to follow the action. 1.

 

Acting

Amadeus really features two principle men to help tell its story: F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri and Tom Hulce (who starred alongside John Belushi in Animal House) as Mozart. Both men were nominated for Best Actor, with Murray taking home the prize.

 

Antonio Salieri is a deeply religious man with a knack for hearing great music, but not so much of a knack for composing it. A man from humble Tuscan roots, Salieri takes to music after his father passes away when he is just a boy. Eventually, he works his way up to court composer for Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor (played by Jeffrey Jones, who also played Principal Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). It is at the height of his power and influence in the musical world when Mozart, or as he calls him “an obscene child” comes into his life. From the get-go, Salieri is immediately jealous of Mozart due to Mozart’s continual flaunting of musical convention and the fact that Mozart’s presence in Vienna shoves Salieri’s own shortcomings in his face.

 

Salieri is a hated rival of Mozart who pretends to like him. Throughout the film, we see Salieri resort to deceit and blackmail to get his way, to keep his influence. But, deep down inside, he secretly admires Mozart greatly, going to each of his shows just to be near such great musical talent. While Salieri sinks lower and lower, he becomes embittered by his failures to keep pace with the young and super-talented Mozart. He turns his back on his religion and his convictions. He becomes more and more desperate to get rid of him and quelch his insatiable jealousy. This leads him to a life that’s been filled with decades of regret and self-loathing. He is our story’s villain, but that fact is not immediately apparent to the viewer. It’s only through his deluded view of the past and his actions as a younger man that lead you to believe that he’s the bad guy. And yet, he never admits any wrong. Those are the best villains: the ones who are bad while believing they are only good.

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Tom Hulce plays Mozart, and regardless if Hulce is an actual musical genius, he certainly plays one very well. Mozart comes to Vienna with a nose for partying that’s second only to his ear for music. He refuses to take the world seriously and he has a laugh that’s as if Mr. Ed developed a sense of humor.  All of the above is true except when it comes to his music. As he explains to Joseph II, “I’m a vulgar man. But my music isn’t.”

 

Because of Mozart’s fondness for partying and an unabashed need to buck the convention, he’s either despised or revered within the musical community. He flaunts the rules, loves conflict, and “leaves it all on the field” when it comes to his music. Therefore, this takes a toll on those around him, particularly his wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge).

 

Regardless of all of this, Mozart is continually squeezed by those who wish to do him in, including Salieri, and even his demanding father, Leopold (played by Roy Dotrice, who was also in Cheech and Chong’s The Corsican Brothers that same year). It’s not enough to be a musical prodigy, but to also bear the weight of crushing expectations. He doesn’t always handle these expectations well, either. This leads us to another compelling character arc throughout the film: Mozart, initially gung-ho about music and composition, ends up trapped in his prison of notes, frantically working on his final piece before he dies. 1.

 

Directing

Stealing another Best Director Oscar for his work on this film is Milos Forman. After watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest last week and now Amadeus, I can confidently say that Forman is one of my favorite directors. He has this incredible ability to help us understand very complex issues and themes within films.

 

Amadeus is not only a movie about a rivalry between two musicians (and a darn good movie, at that), but it’s an incredible narrative force that is easily up there with Slumdog Millionaire and The Godfather for the best movie I’ve done so far. Every single detail needed in the movie is there. It’s almost a perfect film and I was in love with it from the opening scene.

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What I found most interesting in Amadeus was the Forman’s portrayal of each of the traditional seven deadly sins: envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, pride, and wrath. Each one of them is explored to some degree by each of the characters. This shows that there is no model human in this story, everyone is flawed. That’s what made it so relatable and so timely.

 

Normally when I think of the 1700s in Europe, I think of some romanticized version of the past where everyone was prim and proper and wore powdered wigs. Drawing on this bias, my expectations were thrown out the window. No, this movie didn’t have the brutality of other eye-opening films about a particular era in history, but it was a movie about people, plain and simple. From this rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, all other mistakes and prejudices form during each interaction with Salieri, up until Mozart’s death.

 

As we leave Milos Forman behind, so too, do we leave behind two excellent films that were lucky enough to join the 90 other winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture. His influence on cinema cannot be understated. What I expected were a couple of decent films. What I actually got were two very powerful, emotional, dramatic and intriguing artist films that were a couple of absolute classics. He toyed with my expectations, made me use my noggin (an underrated trait of directors), and kept me on the edge of my seat. I will be thankful for these last two weeks. It’s true that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus will go in my personal hall of fame. 1.

 

Bonus Points

It gets a 10 in my book.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Notes

Amadeus won the 57th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 25, 1985 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, and A Soldier’s Story for Best Picture. The award was presented by Laurence Olivier and accepted by Saul Zaentz, producer. In his presentation, Olivier forgot to list the nominees, instead simply ripping open the envelope and exclaiming Amadeus had won. In total, Amadeus was nominated 11 times and won eight awards, both were the most of the night.

 

Other notable winners included Sally Field winning Best Actress for Places in the Heart, Haing S. Ngor winning Best Supporting Actor for The Killing Fields, and Peggy Ashcroft becoming the oldest winner of Best Supporting Actress at 77 for her role in A Passage to India. The ceremony was hosted by Jack Lemmon

 

Next Week

Next up on 89 & Counting is William Friedkin’s The French Connection. After that, it’s Braveheart, Grand Hotel, Crash, The Artist, and The Sting.

 

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