Rapid Response: Amadeus

I read the work of Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, David Bordwell and so many more critics, and I can see their greatness and intelligence on the page. I fear that I may never attain that level of excellence and that I will be punished only to recognize it in others.

This was the plight of Antonio Salieri, or at least in the epic drama “Amadeus,” in which he believes himself punished by God to see such an insolent brat as Mozart achieve genius so effortlessly as if he was a beacon for the Lord. Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) tells his story in flashback after he is taken to a mental institution in a suicide attempt. He accuses himself of actually murdering Mozart.

Much of this sounds very dour, and a listen to those resounding first pipe organ chords may suggest that it doesn’t get more epic or dramatic than this. But the film is like a good opera, filled with life, amusement, comedy and most importantly, music.

Milos Forman’s film performs a delicate dance to a hidden melody as the characters partake in their hokey, 18th Century dialogue, and the awkward hilarity comes in when Mozart (Tom Hulce) enters the room and seems to be so willfully missing all the beats. When he first meets Salieri and the German Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones), his indignant, entitled and disrespectful personality shines through instantly, and his silly, high pitched laugh shatters the elegant tone of the room. And then he sits down to play, in this case, already memorized Salieri’s simple welcoming march, and corrects it. It’s crushing and embarrassing, but still a moment of beauty.

Most musical biopics seem ridiculous when the main character can conjure up his genius so effortlessly, as if all it took was sitting down at a piano and being able to write “Light My Fire” like in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” But with Mozart, we believe it, and we somewhat hate him for it.

That’s because music floats in “Amadeus’s” ethos. Mozart can conjure it up with a flick of his hand or a mesmerized roll of his eyes into the back of his head. The film’s most famous scene on Mozart’s death bed shows him performing each individual part as he channels it from his mind. Salieri writes it all down but cannot process his brilliance quickly enough. The sound mixing here is lovely and visionary, and the film’s many other opera recreations are nothing short of astounding. “Amadeus” has unbelievably lush, magnificent and colorful sets in which every shot looks like a artful tableaux. It can’t be said enough.

Part of the way Forman does this is in his shots of Mozart or Salieri conducting. They’re always framed low and centered with a massive audience in the background. The genius is placed in front of the people here, and always in sync with the music. This film knows nothing but beauty and perfection of the art of music, and yet the film is hardly stuffy or overly melodramatic. It’s a perfect harmony of emotions.

“Amadeus” is based on Peter Schaffer’s 1979 play of the same name, but Forman’s film is highly cinematic. It improves upon anything that can be accomplished on stage in wondrous ways. And consequently, “Amadeus” won eight Oscars in 1984, virtually sweeping the awards to become an instant classic. You watch it, and like Mozart’s music, it still has that timeless quality that will never fade.

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