Rami Malek morphed into Freddie Mercury, Rocketman (2019) continues to set box office numbers ablaze, and we await The Beatles in the upcoming feature, Yesterday (2019), and Bruce Springsteen in Blinded by the Light (2019). It is Classic Rock 101 in the movies these days, and the hits keep on coming.
Whether you call them musical biopics or biographical musicals, these movies are creating rock n’ roll revivals worldwide, and they inspired me to revive the greatest biopic about a musician ever made.
I cherish my memory of seeing Amadeus (1984) for the first time with my dad when I was in the 6th grade. He would imitate Tom Hulce’s shriek of a laugh as I hastily put in the second VHS tape to continue watching the madness of a musical genius fall just as fast as it skyrocketed. It was an honor to complete the 160-minute legend of a story. I also cherish the gleams of awe on my students’ faces when they see Amadeus for the first time and always ask, “Is that really how Mozart died?”
I experience Amadeus every year, and I observe new cinematic elements, character arcs, and musical nuances each time. And, that is what a cinematic masterpiece is – a capsule of time.
Let us begin with the wonders of fictionalized history: This is my favorite genre in film because it plays with historical timelines and events but holds true the atmosphere of the period, character impressions, and filmmaker’s freedom to interpret. As the late, great Roger Ebert would say, “I look to books for facts and to movies for feelings.” Did Mozart possess an irritating shriek of a laugh and rip gas in front of European royalty? Probably not, but Tom Hulce’s interpretation of Mozart’s documented arrogance (and written obsession of flatulence) is brilliant and captures the spirit of Amadeus in one shrill, abrasive laugh. (The first thing my wife did when I told her I was going to write this blog was “try” to imitate the laugh.)
As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin toyed with the historical evolutions of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs while preserving the tone of their unparalleled egos, Amadeus portrays Mozart as a hippy prodigy while generating an entertaining education on Classical music, the patronage system, opera, and artistic rivalry.
We follow Mozart’s punkish pink wig and rise in the 18-century Austrian music scene through the eyes of scathingly covetous Kapellmeister, Antonio Salieri – played by F. Murray Abraham who wholeheartedly deserved the Best Actor Oscar. In the movie, Salieri worships Mozart’s genius as much as he despises God for creating a mediocre composer in himself. Did the real Salieri envy Mozart this much? No, but the infamous myth is a better story, making for a better play (Paul Schaffer as playwright) and a better and Oscar-winning movie. In reality, if any rivalry existed between Mozart and Salieri, it was in the measly competition for the vocal coach position of Princess Elisabeth of Wurttemberg (Salieri won it). In the end, and six years before Mozart passed, the two collaborated on a 4-minute long cantata entitled, “For the Recovered Healthy of Ophelia.” Not much there for a play, let alone a motion picture.
I prefer to believe in Amadeus’ Salieri who sickly devises to work Mozart to death as he writes his own Requiem literally on his own deathbed. I prefer to believe that Emperor Joseph II really was ignorant of anything music (“There are simply too many notes”). I want to believe that Mozart’s deceased father haunted him and influenced the masterwork, Don Giovanni. And, I want to believe in “Wolfi’s” laugh.
Lastly, one element no one talks about (and the Oscars snubbed for sure) is Amadeus’ seamless execution of editing. Using the process of match cuts, the story propels itself off one moment in time to another like a verse to a refrain. The most memorable match cut is when Mozart’s mother-in-law berates him for his slovenly behavior, and as her mouth moves up and down with mad shouts, the movie turns her voice down but matches her mouth movement to the singing of the Magic Flute Soprano in the next scene. It is an astounding transition only achievable by a movie.
Let’s face it – without Amadeus and Amadeus, we would have no Freddie Mercury or Elton John, nor their accompanying movies. Although Amadeus is set in a time much further past the classic rock era, the film remains timeless, in search of younger viewers or repeat viewings by today’s adults.
I am jealous of anyone who gets to see this groundbreaker for the first time. And, if you’ve already heard Mozart’s cackle, please share your thoughts.