In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
Director: Miloš Forman
Writers: Peter Shaffer (original stage play)
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones
Running Time: 160 minutes
Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the all-time great music films, and it has appeared on countless lists (and won numerous awards).
For a film named Amadeus, it’s a bit surprising that legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart isn’t entirely the focal point of the story. In fact, the film is less of a biopic than it is a tale of jealousy combined with an overwhelming love of music.
The envious party is Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a fellow composer who has earned respect as the court composer for Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). In the film’s opening scene, we see an elderly Salieri attempting to commit suicide by slitting his throat, all while screaming about how he killed Mozart. His attempt is unsuccessful, and he ends up in an insane asylum. When a Father (Richard Frank) visits him to take his confession, Salieri begins a long-winded spiel recounting his days as a rival of Mozart (Tom Hulce), all of which we see through flashbacks.
Salieri’s recollection mainly covers Mozart’s time in Vienna, essentially the last ten years of the young composer’s life. Salieri’s first glimpse of Mozart is rather amusing, and immediately it shreds any pre-conceived notions about classical artists we might have. Wolfgang (or “Wolfie” as he is later affectionately called) is childish, chasing a busty blonde throughout the palace, eventually even getting down on all fours to pull her out from underneath a table. A unique first impression, that’s for sure.
And then he laughs. Oh, what a laugh. Mozart’s obnoxious, high-pitched giggles catch many of the patrons off-guard. While shrill, his distinct laugh perfectly fits his offbeat demeanor.
In many ways, Mozart’s life is parallel to that of a modern day rock star. He rises to fame, gets married (to the aforementioned blonde, played by Elizabeth Berridge), keeps an unkempt home and then falls into a life of booze and erratic behavior in order to keep up with the pressures of his work. It’s interesting to see that even though the music has changed drastically over the years, the performers really aren’t that different.
The jealousy kicks in when Salieri realizes that he will simply never be as talented as his rival. Mozart is able to come up with bombastic pieces seemingly at whim, not even needing to make adjustments to what he writes down. It doesn’t help that upon hearing one of Salieri’s pieces for the first time, Mozart quickly tweaks it into something far superior, giving it little to no noticeable thought. Also, Salieri is deeply concerned that he will be forgotten throughout history, whereas Mozart will be fondly remembered (he was right — at least until this film came out).
F. Murray Abraham is tremendous as Salieri, and his performance demonstrates the burden of a man so stricken with jealousy that he will do anything to gain satisfaction. His smile as the Emperor yawns during one of Mozart’s extended plays is masterful, and you can’t help but empathize with his pleasure, however misguided it may be. Tom Hulce’s take on Mozart is the perfect complement, as the two men could not be any more different.
Although I enjoyed the focus on the rivalry, I can’t help but wish that we got to learn more about Mozart the man. Early on, shortly after getting married, his wife is shown as being pregnant. Not soon after that, a toddler appears, meant to be their son. No recognition is really given to his son — in fact, we never learn his name. It turns out that Mozart actually had six children, of which two only survived infancy (only the one is ever shown in the film). Perhaps a little more background on Mozart could have been given rather than including a lengthy vaudeville performance near the film’s final act.
Still, minor quibbles aside, Amadeus truly is an impressive piece of filmmaking. The attention to detail is astounding and true to the period, and the performances, especially Abraham’s, are phenomenal. As someone who knows little about classical music, I still found the film to be very engaging. If you enjoy classical music and/or operas, well, you’re bound to *love* this film.