Friday, April 02, 2021

Amadeus (1984)

USA / France / Czechoslovakia / Italy, 160 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Peter Shaffer, Zdenek Mahler
Photography: Miroslav Ondricek
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Editors: Michael Chandler, Nena Danevic
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow, Roy Dotrice, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Cynthia Nixon

There is no break or intermission or anything like that in Amadeus—it's longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by 1984 long movies rarely offered breaks anymore and I'd like to know why. But I had to flip my DVD over at about the 1:50 mark and I took the opportunity to make some popcorn and tidy up a little. Note that I watched the theatrical cut, because that's what I had on hand (director Milos Forman's 2002 edit is some 20 minutes longer). I noticed that in the first half of Amadeus Mozart was presented as a rock star more like 1999 Prince, brilliant, child-like, sexual, high on his own genius, and unshakably confident. In the second half, which is literally darker even if you're only talking about the lighting, Mozart has become more like such grizzled veterans just off their peaks as the Stones, Neil Young, David Bowie, or maybe Justin Bieber.

Giving in to these glammy rock star dynamics turns out to be as good a way as any for me into this one. Biopics don't interest me as a general rule, let alone about geniuses of the distant past, but I love Forman as a general rule so those two things balance out. But the focus on opera, while obviously well done and with tons of production value, tends to tilt it the other way for me. Then its obvious source as a stage production plus frankly the bonanza of a lot of Oscar hoopla (11 nominations, eight wins, including Best Picture), with all the follow-on generalized overrating (#84 on the IMDb big list), make me inclined toward suspicion. Tom Hulce as Mozart is unconvincing at best beyond a memorably irritating cackle. He's better in Fearless, possibly because it's a smaller role. But in the end, OK sure, all that genius—Mozart, Forman, Twyla Tharp again on choreography, Cynthia Nixon in a small part—weighs in and eventually you just have to give in. The movie is long but rarely less than entertaining.

Peter Shaffer wrote the original play and also this screenplay and it's not bad as portraits of genius go. Mozart was a prodigy who, if this movie is to be trusted, could understand composition so thoroughly, simply from hearing a piece, that he could reproduce it instantly—and also backwards. He also works on speaking backwards. Stunts like that often spice up this story. Other scenes feature his confrontations with the Emperor of Austria and the emperor's court, where among other things he is told that his music has too many notes. "Just cut a few and it will be perfect," says the emperor—a line that may resonate with anyone who has ever had to face a client. Mozart was also, at least earlier in the picture, a randy little fellow forever chasing skirt, swearing, and in general carrying on as he pleased. "I am a vulgar man," he says at one point in one of his showdowns with his betters. "But I assure you my music is not." Shaffer focuses the story on Mozart's rival at the Austrian court, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, in the one really good performance here), using him as an artful frame.

Forman's stuff is usually above average, but Amadeus is dragged down by some unfortunate casting. Jeffrey Jones as the Emperor of Austria distracts for his later scandals and Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart's wife has the vibe of just stepping off the set of a music video or low-budget slasher (in fact, she made exactly such a picture in 1981 with Tobe Hooper, The Funhouse, a decent if dated romp). She came off OK at the time I saw Amadeus when it was new, as I recall, but now she feels like a pure artifact of the '80s here. On the other hand, Amadeus is good at capturing the sense of Mozart's operas, how much of himself he put into them even though he was still a young man—35 when he died. I have no idea about the veracity of all the unreeling circumstances here of Salieri intriguing against Mozart and Mozart's lapses into drinking and a debauched life. Partly because of Berridge, partly because the movie's conception of Mozart is rooted in an '80s sense of rock stars, Amadeus has not necessarily been treated well by time.

It never really solves basic problems of the biopic as such either, in this case notably dramatizing the work of a composer, which is nearly as difficult as the work of writers or hackers. But I will say Amadeus lands on a few inspired ways to get that across, particularly when Mozart is dictating to Salieri, who turns out in the last scenes to be far and away the most interesting character in the whole thing. The Salieri character makes it all work better as a movie, but it also leaves Mozart looking like a supporting player in a movie about him named after his middle name. I doubt that Amadeus is historically accurate, or necessarily even close, but Forman's skill makes up for much of the rest. I've been doing some complaining here, but it is definitely worth seeing once if you never have.

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