Program Notes: Amadeus (1984)

Not a few Americans list Amadeus (1984) as among their favorite all-time movies.

The story of the Viennese court composer Salieri and his vendetta against the young musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a huge hit and a major Oscar contender. It elevated an unknown actor named F. Murray Abraham to the status of Academy Award winner and introduced countless filmgoers to Mozart’s music.

So is it churlish of me to admit that I don’t think the film is nearly as powerful as the stage play on which it was based?

I remember walking into a Broadway theater in 1980 only to find the stage already occupied by a man in an ancient-looking wheelchair. While the paying customers filed in this guy just sat there, unmoving, his back to the audience. At 8 p.m. on the dot the houselights lowered, he turned his wheelchair around with a smooth movement, and Antonio Salieri – portrayed by the great Ian McKellan – began telling us how much he admired and despised that potty-mouthed fellow Mozart.

Film Screening:
Amadeus (1984)
Monday, Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

If you’ve only seen Milos Forman’s film Amadeus you probably didn’t know that in the play Mozart is hardly there at all. It’s the story of Salieri, a man who so wanted to be the world’s greatest musician that he vowed a life of celibacy if only God would grant his wish. And though he’s risen to become a major mover and shaker in the Emperor’s court, Salieri now finds that God has tricked him by giving so much musical talent to Mozart (“Amadeus” means “beloved of God”), a crude, infantile, braying fool whose compositions are so beautiful as to make the angels weep.

Unlike Peter Shaffer’s stage play, the film (also scripted by Shaffer) evenly divides the story between the calculating, bitter Salieri (Abraham) and the childishly innocent Mozart (Thomas Hulce).

And while this waters down the play’s real strength (in my opinion, anyway), it makes sense commercially. After all, you’d expect theater audiences to already know something about Mozart. Moviegoers are another story.

To that end the film is overflowing with Mozart’s music (nearly 90 minutes of it) and with his personal history, neither of which had much of a role in the play.

As Forman has written in his memoir: “Music interferes with the spoken word on stage ... both compete for the attention of the ear. In film, however, the image has a far greater weight than the word, and music mates with images with the greatest of ease, multiplying the power of both, so we were able to restore the genius of Mozart that was left out of the play. In fact, we thought of the music as the third character in our film.”

In the editing room Forman discovered that Mozart’s music not only worked magic on the audience, it even had the power to narrate part of the story.

“Mozart’s notes became as important as the words of our script or the images of our story.”

For those of us who love the Salieri-centric Amadeus, the good news is Abraham – who up to that point was known mostly as the drug dealer tossed out of a helicopter by Al Pacino in Scarface – is little short of spectacular.

The story is told in flashback as the musician makes a long, rambling confession to a priest, and Abraham is thoroughly convincing as both a suicidal old man and a middle-aged composer enjoying tremendous prestige. Just watch his face in his confrontations with the impetuous young Mozart, whose undeniable brilliance cuts his older colleague to the quick.

Abraham deserved that Oscar.

Hulce, who back in ’84 was still known as “Pinto” for his role in the hit comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House, captures Mozart’s odd idiocyncracies. Of the supporting performances the best belongs to Jeffrey Jones as the wonderfully inept Emperor, a numbskull who can never keep up with the intrigues sweeping through his court.

Filmed in Prague (Forman’s home before fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1968), Amadeus is a visual feast as well as an aural one. Forman proves himself a master at recreating the atmosphere of Vienna in the late 18th Ccentury.

Other films in the series “Mondays with Milos”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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