I don’t know classical music. I can put it on and get caught up in it easily, fall prey to its harmonies and picture a story unfold. Still I’ve never looked further into it. Maybe because orchestral music is basically our century’s muzak. Knowing that we’ll always hear it, that it’s homogenized into one big gentle noise, we keep it as a negligible, inoffensive relic of the past. There are so many working musicians today, and we’re preoccupied looking for ones that speak to us more personally. Classical music has had its time is the general consensus. With some effort I could learn to discern lesser composers and cultivate an ear for quality, but for now my party conversation potential is limited to the greats: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart – the musical equivalents of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Jane Austen, and Abraham Lincoln. Name any of them as my favorite and I’ll get a strained smile and a condescendingly encouraging, “cool, Pat.”
So this is the brain that went into Milos Forman’s Amadeus, a highly fictionalized account of composer Antonio Salieri’s lifelong jealousy of his junior, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I won’t be able to drop musical allusions left and right like more informed critics (showoffs), but I certainly ended the movie wishing I could. Mozart’s work is sampled so roundly and frequently that his career isn’t simply documented, it’s performed with absolute integrity, brilliantly conscious of its effect. The movie breathes it in and lives in its rhythms and movements, fabricating a majestically dramatic atmosphere marked by stark contrasts and playfully heightened emotions. The inevitable concert scenes are so directed that the music from the orchestra pit pours back into Salieri and Mozart, into their story. When Salieri is shown a portfolio of Mozart’s first drafts in his office, his rival’s scores are a barrage of wildly diverse, equally magnificent compositions. Mozart’s natural talent is Salieri’s most personal tragedy, and the scene flies with the tiny movement of Salieri’s flitting eyes, reading music that is transformed into the most powerful sounds he has ever heard. It becomes Salieri’s final capitulation to Mozart’s genius.
Forman keeps a firm footing in Mozart’s music, which is finessed beautifully, even torturously, to Salieri’s grudge-fueled narrative. The movie clocks in at two hours and forty minutes, but there’s never one minute where it isn’t alive, either brewing in misery or rejoicing in ecstasy. It’s one thing to praise the soundtrack, but Forman does an exceptional job moving the story forward, making sure that Salieri’s frustration grows and Mozart’s obsessions bloat without drowning in scenes involving a scowling Italian or besotted Austrian. Salieri’s overriding jealousy is rendered in a surprising number of iterations: incredulous surprise, genuine jealousy, anger, pathetic adoration, and impotence. F. Murray Abraham spends a heck of a lot of time brooding, but each scene brings to light a new facet to his personality. Same with Hulce’s growing dissatisfaction with life in Vienna. His antipathy is never left to rot. I find myself endlessly drawn to contrasts talking about this all. There’s no more pronounced contrast than in the two men themselves, both, by the way, played excellently by F. Murray Abraham as Salieri and Tom Hulce as Mozart.
As told by an elderly Salieri who’s been committed to an insane asylum (I’ll get to that), his story begins at boyhood, living under an oppressive father who preaches the blue collar life. When a “miracle” happens and his father dies, young Antonio embarks on a career in music, which he fancies as the voice of God ever since hearing the echoes of chanting choirs reverberate over the damp stone walls during Mass. He may as well have entered the holy orders for the way he treats his profession. He is always presented impeccably, and women are virtually absent from his life. Mozart is then introduced as a skirt chasing boor, albeit a shockingly clever one, and then has his privileged upbringing detailed. Born to a doting, successful musician, he’s a prodigy with music flowing in his veins, little note-shaped erythrocytes flowing through arteries with staffs and treble clefs at their intersections. Music comes from inside him, and whether he’s perfect or not, in his eyes his music is. On the surface, the two artists are the perfect mismatched couple: impeccable, pious professional and dissolute genius slob. But Forman and company go much deeper, exploring both minds in equal measure and with equal compassion. Salieri and Mozart are both smug, but where Salieri revels in his post (to which he’s deservedly risen), Mozart revels in his innate superiority.
Salieri is accomplished, but Mozart is innovative. While Salieri has felt he’s achieved his status and plateaued as a composer, earning the rewards and the position he enjoys, Mozart, the prodigy and lifelong musician, sees it as an endless pursuit. One recurring motif is Salieri’s sweet tooth. He indulges in the trappings of his success. His vanity is fed by the satisfaction that he has produced work comparable to that which he worshipped to. In turn, his faith contributes to his false modesty. First Salieri is shown seen stealing sweets, next he’s presenting platefuls to guests. The movie itself begins with two servants knocking on Salieri’s chamber door, trays of desserts in their hands. They jest with their master, steal a taste of the midnight snack, and come across as insufferable buffoons, helped along by the fact that one is played by Vincent Schiavelli and the other by, well, a jolly, chubby fellow. It takes place decades after the main narrative, just before Salieri’s committed, and once the movie is underway, these two characters are never seen again. Odd that they’re our introduction into this world then, when Forman needs to set the tone for his musical drama/revenge thriller, though in hindsight appropriate when their dopey non-refinement is immediately counteracted by the sight of Salieri’s suicide attempt – a musical-like switcheroo – and further down the line when they seem to be a foretaste of Mozart’s zaniness. So we learn Salieri has been toasting his success for a long time, yet the presence of these two doofuses seems to reinforce the fact that Salieri has been defeated and plagued by dolts reminiscent of his archrival. His pride is forever at conflict with his envy.
Tom Hulce is exceptionally well as Mozart, exposing the charred wick beneath the flame. Where Salieri gorges himself on sweets in personal triumph, Mozart empties himself with alcohol in his pursuit of art. His abnormal upbringing has left him with a crooked worldview wherein he expects all to worship him, and he refuses a life of pedagogy that would easily pay his bills, as any sane composer would pursue, making new little composers for the next generation. It’s a waste of time he says, and distracts from his work. But when the debts pile up, his first action is to sell out his Don Giovanni to a comic opera for a parody. It’s a decision that leaves us wondering how seriously he takes himself and his legacy, and it’s an indication of his imminent mental collapse. Sympathy for Hulce’s take on Mozart can be strained when his cockiness takes over, and even though we want to cheer on his impolitic ways in the face of Jeffery Jones’s humorously recreational but self-serious Joseph II, his demeaning attitude toward his colleagues and his backhanded treatment of Salieri push the viewer away. His self-destruction is mainly fueled by his father’s memory, provoked by Salieri’s cruel tricks, and if it weren’t for his early demise, it’s easy to imagine him in the asylum in Salieri’s place.
In a movie filled with contrast it wouldn’t do for it’s primary mission to revolve around one objective, that is, celebrating Mozart’s music. The final contrast, the opposite of praise for the dead genius, is mourning for the common man. A broken Salieri declares himself patron saint of mediocrity, and goes about blessing the lunatics around him before the credits roll. Would it have been too painful for the audience to see him offer his blessing to a crowd of stable minded people? We end with this war cry of pessimism, and the awful part is how true it is. Had Salieri possessed a sounder, less introspective, mind, he may have lived quite happily in Mozart’s shadow. Mozart is a freak of nature, possessing innate talent that was nurtured under the most advantageous circumstances. “If [God] didn’t want me to praise Him with music, then why implant the desire?” Salieri asks his priest in a devastating moment. It may be Salieri’s own pride, but in the face of Mozart’s genius, he is inferior, and his hopes utterly dashed. Amadeus ends giving us the gift of Mozart, and the sobering fact that, even with all of Salieri’s hard work, the success we’re greedy for may be unreachable. That is, if we learn of a higher level of success.