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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Amadeus

Starring: Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham
Director: Milos Forman
Rated: PG
RunTime: 158 Minutes
Release Date: September 1988
Genres: Classic, Drama, Music

*Also starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow, Jeffrey Jones, Roy Dotrice, Christine Ebersole, Charles Kay

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

What is it that you really like to do that you'd like the world to know about? Do you practice your basketball for four hours a day and wonder why you can't play like Michael Jordan? Bat a ball and can't figure why you're not even close to Sammy Sosa? Have you been acting in your community theater for twenty years and can't for the life of you understand why you're not grabbed for a Broadway role? The answer could be politics, of course: you have to know the right people to get the job. But the real explanation in one word might be...talent. What is talent? Talent is a gift that some people are born with, a present without which all the practice in the world might make you nothing higher than mediocre. Where does talent come from? If you're religious at all, you'll reply that it comes from God. Talent is a gift of God and around this thesis lies the principal theme of Milos Forman's "Amadeus," based on a screenplay and theater work by the remarkable Peter Shaffer. Why is it that a boorish, vulgar fellow like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, childlike for all his short life, given to bathroom humor and some physical comedy, becomes the greatest musical genius of all time...while Antonio Salieri, favored by the Austrian emperor Joseph II, is all but forgotten today? Simple. Both practiced their skill at composing and playing but Salieri lacked Mozart's talent. Oh, he was able to fool the virtually tone-deaf emperor and his bootlicking court in Vienna, but history has not been kind to him just as life had ultimately been unkind to Mozart.

"Amadeus" is the most wonderful movie on the subject of music ever made, a colorful costume drama with stunning music and performances, particularly by F. Murray Abraham (which won him the Oscar for 1984), by Tom Hulce in the title role (garnering for him an Oscar nomination) and in a supporting role by Jeffrey Jones, still known to movie fans principally as the dean of students in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." I said it '84 and nothing has changed since to alter this view. Were my high-school students of that opinion? I took a class to the film eighteen years ago, but the consensus among the teens was "there's no beat." I suppose that quote is comparable to the one made by Emperor Joseph's adviser's "Too many notes." The adviser was telling his boss what the latter wanted to hear that Mozart's compositions were inferior to Salieri's because of their complexity.

In any case, maybe even some sophisticated radio stations agreed with the teens because even in New York City which once boasted three stations dedicated to classical music, there's now only one. In New York City, WNCN switched some time ago to a rock format, introducing the new look with "Roll Over, Beethoven," and just recently WNYC declared that classical music "turns people off" and they moved to a talking-heads format.

Too bad for them. And too bad for the movie buffs who may well be unable to dig the music of past centuries or the cultural milieus of past time. Now "Amadeus" is not necessarily for fans of 18th century music only. Milos Forman's exciting pic is stylized--not as much as the off-the-wall interpretations of Ken Russell ("Lisztomania")-- but to just the right degree. Director Milos Forman who copped the Oscar for best director for this picture sets the tone straight away. Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is in a hospital for the insane, whining about his intense envy of Mozart. Now, the Italian composer envied the Austrian only partly because the latter was the better man in the field. The more important reason is that Amadeus is not dead from the neck down like Salieri. He is a vital human being, a vitality that Salieri misinterpreted as boorishness . This vitality enables Mozart to get the gals that Salieri was not able to, and in the Forman stylization of Peter Shaffer's script (based on Shaffer's Broadway play) is all about Mozart as though he were a 20th century guy on 'ludes. (I suppose they didn't have today's sophisticated drugs during Mozart's snuff-taking lifetime 1756-91 but there is some evidence that the poison that did the man in was not administered by the Italian but by himself. He may have died from cirrhosis of the liver, a product of his prodigious drinking while under the stress of poverty.) Salieri had worked his way up as an Italian kid from the town of Legnago, eager to serve God through his music, to become the court composer to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna. He is astonished when he hears Mozart's music performed for the Archbishop of Salzburg but even more amazed when he notes that the 26 year old prodigy is playing cat-and-mouse games with his girl friend Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) when he should have been conducting his chamber group. The Austrian Emperor invites the young genius to play for him but the envious Salieri blocks his appointment to become the teacher to the emperor's niece. From then on, the cat-and-mouse games are between Salieri and Mozart, the former pretending to be a confidant and supporter while all the while plotting against Amadeus. Ultimately the rumor spreads after Mozart's death a rumor still alive today in some circles but highly unlikely to be true- that Mozart was poisoned by the envious Salieri.

In this eighteenth anniversary director's cut, twenty minutes have been added, the most noticeable one being the scene in which Salieri, promising to influence Mozart's appointment to the court, propositions the fair Constanze, who sneaks out of her residence, shows up at Salieri's place, and removes her top. We in the audience have seen how well-endowed Ms. Berridge is without that gesture, which is listed as "brief nudity" by the marketing people, but that relatively banal scene cost the movie the PG rating it received in '84. Now rated "R" by the MPAA, "Amadeus" may not be available to the very audience that should be taken in droves by their teachers to show them that there's a little more to life than rap and disco. The agreement to take the R rating and one is the one negative aspect of the new version which in its exposition of Mozart's music shifts from the title character mind to an actual performance and back again thanks to its superb editing. Among other works, we hear segments of "The Magic Flute," "Don Giovanni," "The Abduction from the Seraglio, " (originally questioned by the emperor because it takes place in a harem) and "The Marriage of Figaro" (originally banned by the emperor for fear of stiring up class friction).

Perhaps Salieri triumphs over Mozart in the end, that is, in 1985. Life follows art in an ironic way. The chap who performed in the role of the Italian composer (Abraham) won the Oscar for Best Actor in a movie released in '84. The fellow who played Salieri's arch-rival, Mozart (Hulce), took a nomination but ultimately lost out to Abraham. Could Mr. Hulce have entertained thoughts of poisoning his more successful rival?

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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