One of the most popular topics for artists to explore is the topic that they perhaps know best; art and the artistic process. Works that are built around this concept often focus upon the struggles and heartaches that make up the artistic process, while still reminding audiences of the satisfaction that makes it all worthwhile. Some works, however, delve into the dark side of the artist’s life and chronicle the devastating effects of a life devoted to an unappreciated or failing craft. One such work is the 1984 biography Amadeus. While the film was marketed as a historical work about the life of the prophetic composer Mozart, the film is one of the most remarkable portrayals of the artist’s life from its euphoric highs to the consuming effects of its devastating lows.
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The story begins with once renowned composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) living out his final years in obscurity at a hospital in Vienna. Sensing that his time may be running short, Salieri summons a priest to read him his last rights, but is mortified when the priest treats him no differently than the other patients. Confronted with his own anonymity, he reveals that confession is the sacrament that he is truly interested in as he reflects upon the events that brought him from rising star to aging unknown in the film’s central flashback. He begins his tale during his childhood when he became fascinated by music and received a vision that convinced him that he was chosen by God to pursue a career in music. In order to become worthy of his perceived destiny, he devotes himself to hard work and abstains from any and all forms of vice as he grows older. After years of diligently studying and working to make a name for himself, Salieri finally attains success after gaining the notice of Emperor Franz Joseph (Jeffrey Jones) and the royal court of Vienna. Just as he begins to grasp his goals, however, another artist arrives on Vienna’s music scene; prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Despite his natural gifts, Mozart is shown to have more in common with a modern-day fraternity member than a musical genius as he seems to spend just as much if not more time drinking, carousing, and spending his limited funds as he does writing the works that will make him famous. Regardless of his personal habits, Mozart’s talent, while in many ways ahead of his time, cannot be denied and he quickly begins to win the favor of the same patrons that Salieri has spent years trying to impress. Determined to maintain his success, Salieri completely devotes himself to his craft, only to have Mozart effortlessly best him at every turn. After losing his commissions, status, and finally his muse and the object of his secret infatuation to Mozart, Salieri takes on a new mission in life; to destroy Mozart’s career at any cost. So begins a descent that proves the desperate lengths an artist will go to in pursuit of ‘success’ and the all too high price that some will pay for a chance at immortality.
Although excellent entertainment, Amadeus is not a film that is known for its historical merit. Rather than a traditional biography, the film was adapted from the Broadway play of the same name, which chronicled the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart and explored the popular legend that the vengeful Salieri was responsible for Mozart’s death. Much like purported historical dramas such as JFK, Amadeus uses the basic facts of its character’s lives to tell its own story. Unlike JFK, however, the film does not alter history in an effort to promote its theory or push forward a revisionist agenda. Instead, the film follows in the tradition of such historical tales as Spartacus and The Crucible by using its historical story to analyze and comment upon themes that still resonate today. For example in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas’ rebellious slave stood in for people unjustly persecuted during the McCarthy era much in the same way that Hulce’s Mozart serves as a metaphor for true art and genius. Likewise, Abraham’s Salieri provides an excellent foil as a symbol of popular mediocrity that is unable to resonate beyond its initial hype. Through its portrait of artists as rivals Amadeus reveals the ways in which art, often touted as one the most redeeming and pure aspects of culture, can be just as corrupt and jaded as any other aspect of society. The juxtaposition of Mozart and Salieri excellently portrays both the awe of true genius and the sense of both injustice and inadequacy that it inevitably inspires in those who strive to but cannot achieve it. The evolution of Salieri from dedicated composer to thief, saboteur, and assassin in the name of success also provides apt insight into the ways in which the standards of society (both then and now) can consume, delude, and ultimately break the many people who struggle to keep up with its ever increasing demands. The film also succeeds where many other art themed films fail in that it portrays its central characters as people who, although fully three dimensional, aren’t so different from viewers, rather than as mythic figures whose lofty profession makes them impossible to relate to. As a result, while it may not be a reliable historical source, Amadeus remains an excellent source of thought, debate, and of course inspiration.
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The cast and musical score combine to bring this historical tale to life in a way that spoke to viewers upon its initial release during the 1980’s and continues to do so today. As Salieri, Abraham seamlessly transforms from disillusioned everyman to ruthless psychotic in such a way that he reminds the audience of the darkness lurking within our own petty jealousies. Similarly, Hulce grows with his character as his Mozart enters the story an overgrown child, but eventually develops into a sympathetic family man struggling to balance his artistic ambitions and domestic responsibilities. The reversal that the two lead performances develop is truly thought provoking in the way that it forces viewers to question the preconceived notions and biases that they entered the film with. Elizabeth Berridge and Roy Dotrice lend apt support as the two diverging influences in Mozart’s life; his free spirited wife and stern father. The film’s score provides an excellent backdrop to the plot’s proceedings and adds a distinct sense of atmosphere and place to the story. The music also allows audiences to experience the power of Mozart’s work first-hand, which effectively speaks for the composer’s genius without forcing the characters to constantly reiterate it.
Amadeus is truly one of the most innovative and unique takes on the historical drama. The well-drawn characters and relevant themes bring the complexities of Mozart’s world to life while still evoking genuine emotion from modern audiences. While I would not recommend this film for historical purposes, I wholeheartedly recommend it to any viewers interested in well executed drama and anyone who has found themselves caught in the timeless struggle to ‘be somebody’ in an anonymous world. Inspired by this film, the 1986 pop hit “Rock Me Amadeus” describes Mozart as a ‘superstar’ and ‘rock idol’; one viewing and even the most modern of music fans will be tempted to describe the classical icon the same way.
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