Amadeus (1984)

A biopic centers on an exceptional individual, capturing in a few hours the essence of his or her life. While there are many compelling people who can sustain this straightforward mode of storytelling, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is certainly one of these, it can often lead to stale, stagnant storytelling. Most of the times, the strength of the subject is enough that the ridged structure works, but what if one could find a way to take a biopic and use a different storytelling technique?

Amadeus does not follow the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) but the recount of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), yet another name lost in the annuls of history. Salieri served in the court of Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) who hires Mozart to his court. As Salieri witnesses the attention praise and affection he once received garnered on the skirt-chasing, crass and buffoonish Mozart he wonders why this man received such natural gifts.

This great paradox drives the film as Salieri grapples with God, trying to comprehend how someone so in tune with the majesty and awe of music could be such a horrible human being. As a religion man, Salieri has a crisis of faith, angered at God for granting such a godless man the gifts he’s asked for in penance and chastity since a child. This man’s inner struggle proves a far more compelling guide through Wolfgang’s life than a simple biography.

This is because the audience shares in the same perplexing. It is unlikely to be a crisis of fair for most viewers, but it does present the audience with a man who makes no sense. When he first appears fully on screen he’s not conducting an orchestra or playing on the piano, but chasing a busty young woman, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), under a table. She scolds him and he tells her to “eat my shit.” How can a man who writes such divine and awe-inspiring music be such a crass person?

It’s undeniable how remarkable his music is. The play of harmonies and daunting intricacies are truly brilliant. The score of the film is made up of his work both as diegetic and non-diegetic music. Many bits of his operas are witnessed which is something to behold for those who have never seen any of his operas before. The most compelling usage of music is the evolution of his works through his life. As crucial turning points in his life occur, his music changes, becomes more domineering and overbearing as it consumes him. This could be heavy-handed, but it’s handled perfectly, an amazing audible manifestation of Mozart’s psychological state.

Likewise, Salieri’s recount of the whole event adds another layer on top of the already compelling story. His view provides a much more dramatic and weighty story as a rivalry emerges from Mozart and the music elite of the day. Their desire to control, shape and hue Mozart’s work is, in large part, led out of Salieri’s jealousy. Yet still, Salieri find’s Mozart’s work so compelling, going to every show, that he maintains a strange relationship of deception with Mozart which leads to some unexpected and amazing moments.

And all these layers upon layers of intrigue, conflict and tension provide an excellent exploration into the idea of the art and artist, digging into deep and meaty questions. What should great art do? What is the artist’s responsibility to his art? What separates great art from good art? How should censorship factor into art? What is the value of the art, what is its purpose?

Amadeus could have easily been a film about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but it’s so much more than that. The filmmakers decide to dig deeper and it pays off. At every moment the film is engaging and often awe-inspiring. Credit must be given to the subject himself, which is a character ripe for such examination, but what solidifies Amadeus as one of the greats is the brilliance of the presentation.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Amadeus (Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]
Amadeus – Director’s Cut [DVD]
Amadeus [DVD]

  • You make a great point that this film could have been something much less than it is. I think it’s a great idea to tell Mozart’s story through the eyes (and ears) of Salieri. And it’s because Mozart is viewed through someone else’s eyes that makes the movie interesting and also biased. What if the film had been shown through Constanze’s eyes? Or his father’s eyes? Those films would’ve been much different films. But I think it’s genius that they took a composer, who did fine work but is hardly remembered today, to experience Mozart’s life for the audience. And you’re right, the movie *does* bring up some meaty questions. I especially like the question of religion that it brings up. Salieri is the model of a pious boy and man, wanting to glorify God through his musical works — and then Mozart’s music, which exceeds his, is created by this baffoon. It’s a really effective way to question religion. I like how Salieri decides that God is just cruel, taunting him. I enjoyed the review!

  • Looks beautiful, and most importantly is a beautiful, if dark story, on how fame and popularity can get to a person.

  • Great review. I’ve always loved this one, and I agree–it’s not a simple biopic, but it is so much more.

  • Insightful, intelligent review. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s not the biographical aspect of the movie that’s the most compelling thing here, but the questions the story raises about us. Why can’t we just appreciate someone’s special gift without feeling the need to run them down or undermine them? Why do we waste our lives doing things we’re not really good at, and then react negatively when someone with talent in that field comes along and shows us up? Why do we blame god (if there is such a thing) for our own bad decisions? And did we create god just to have a scapegoat when things don’t work out for us?
    Tom Hulce was the perfect choice for Mozart here because this isn’t meant to be Mozart, though, unfortunately I think a lot of people came away from the film believing Foreman intended this as a realistic characterization. It wasn’t. While it’s true Mozart was not cut from ordinary cloth the Mozart presented here is Salieri’s Mozart: how he read Mozart through his prism of envy and jealousy. Mozart may or may not have been molesting that pretty young thing under the table and talking crass to her, but that’s what it became in Salieri’s warped brain. Likewise there’s no record of Mozart having a high pitched, over the top, taunting laugh. This was all in Salieri’s head. Every time he heard Mozart laugh he didn’t hear a man enjoying himself, he heard god mocking him.
    Incredible film all around from the locations to the performances to, of course, the music.

    • That is a good point. Most of Mozart as we understand him comes from the perspective of Salieri in the film. It is his account, after all.