I do not like musical biopics. Amadeus, a biographical picture about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is one of my favorite movies. The two previous statements suggests that either Amadeus is either somehow not really a musical biopic, or somehow better than the rest of them, and I’d argue both of those statements are true to some degree.
For starters, Amadeus is adapted from a stage play about the lives of two composers, Mozart (Tom Hulce) and his professional foil Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). And it is heavily dramatized; “mythologized” might even be the better word. The characteristics and relationships at the heart of Amadeus are larger-than-life inventions, at best very loosely based on the historical truth. Thus, by fabricating, Amadeus can subvert that usual problem of biopics, which is that people’s lives tend not to be very cinematic or interesting. (Note that I do not see historical inaccuracy as a flaw of biopics; I’d rather watch a good story than an informative one.)
And, secondly, Amadeus is a more impressive piece of filmmaking than any other musical biopic I’ve ever seen. It has world-class period production values. Full-scale operas are recreated at real European opera houses from the classical era. Simply by scoring the film to Mozart’s best pieces increases the gravity of the film’s tenor, heightening the themes to operatic levels. The acting is tremendous — both Hulce and Abraham are phenomenal, but I agree with the Academy that Abraham’s performance as the guilt-wracked has-been Salieri, narrating the story in a state of semi-sanity, is the bigger tour de force.
The film opens with an aged Salieri confessing to Mozart’s murder decades earlier. When a priest comes to the mental asylum to hear Salieri’s confession, we relive the final years of Mozart’s too-short life from Salieri’s perspective. Mozart has all the God-given talent any man could ever want, but in the body of petulant German prankster who can’t get the respect and money of nobles in the Italian court where he’s employed. Meanwhile, Salieri has all the respect and stability a man could want, but lacks the divine genius that Mozart possesses. The celibate Salieri views the world in terms of his relationship with God, to whom he has devoted his musical faculties, and feels slighted by his Creator that someone like Mozart would have such rare skill. Thus, Salieri finds himself in an envious, almost lustful, rage towards Mozart and his work.
It’s a feast of writing and acting, as the ideas layer on top of each other. There’s the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri pretends to mentor Mozart, but secretly blocks his path to success. This has echoes Mozart’s relationship with his own father, Leopold. Salieri exploits this dynamic upon Leopold’s death, by dressing up like him as an anonymous benefactor paying him to write a Requiem Mass. As Salieri tries to exact revenge on Mozart, creating subpar musical simulacra and nearly seducing his wife, he realize it’s bringing him no closer to his salvation that was his desire in the first place.
All of this is wrapped in a constant struggle between the divine and the sinful. In fact, the film culminates with those two forces merging, the literal murder via worship — Salieri transcribing the Lacrimosa, its very composition sucking the life out of Mozart. Then again, it all may be in Salieri’s head; hiss film-closing cries of “mediocrity!” accompany the priest’s befuddled expression. Could a piece of music really be a death rattle and murder weapon? It’s a tantalizing question that ambiguously reverberates as the film closes.
This is Milos Forman’s best film, and his best direction, as much as I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Forman captures both the sweeping hugeness of the production and the minute little gestures that bring so much depth to the film. He gets incredible work out of the entire cast; there’s not really a performance that brings anything less than what the movie needs. The exception is Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart’s wife, who is fine, but can’t quite bridge the transition her early cluelessness and her later misery smoothly. (Hulce’s descent as Mozart is much more potent.)
This won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it is to me what a Best Picture conceptually should be: The peak of Hollywood filmmaking in cinematic power. Even if it is a musical biopic. Amadeus is a masterpiece, and so I think I can forgive it for that.