Their music may seem highbrow by contemporary standards, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, popular classical composers were the rock stars of their day, often achieving great wealth and privilege and engendering the admiration of everyone from peasants to kings. Though many were serious, aloof, and square, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps more than any of his peers, embraced the role. He partied, spent frivolously, and died young under mysterious circumstances.
Artists blessed with such enviable gifts often live outside the norm, and attempting to connect Mozart's quirks and idiosyncrasies to his lofty musical legacy undoubtedly inspired many Mozart biographies, as well as one unforgettable drama. 'Amadeus' may perpetuate the legends and myths that swirl about this musical icon, but Milos Forman's film adaptation celebrates the composer's genius so completely, anyone who sees this Oscar-winning work will take away one emotion above all others – awe.
Which is exactly what rival composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) feels when he first comes in contact with Mozart (Tom Hulce) at the court of Austria's emperor, Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). Salieri's only dream is to create sublime music that will be revered by the masses both in his lifetime and well beyond, yet he's stymied by a limited talent and growing obsession with the "giggly, dirty-minded creature" who consistently eclipses him. That creature, of course, is Mozart, a self-confessed vulgar man, who's also a living conduit for some of the most beautiful music the world has yet heard. Finished symphonies reside in his "noodle," and he effortlessly transcribes them without alteration or correction, almost, Salieri says, as if he's taking dictation. Humility, however, isn't a trait many geniuses possess, and Mozart's arrogance – coupled with an annoying, effeminate guffaw and an immature attitude about everything except music – alienates those around him, especially Salieri. Mozart also doesn't hide his disdain for mediocrity, and that includes Salieri's compositions, which he attacks with a barrage of stinging barbs that rapidly turn the court composer's jealousy into hatred.
Salieri's quarrel, however, isn't just with Mozart; it's also with God, who he damns for instilling in him a passion for music but cruelly withholding the tools to create immortal works. "Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?" Salieri laments. And why would He use that child to torment the hard-working, pious Salieri so unrelentingly? To retaliate against both the spirit that wronged him and the human that exposes his shortcomings, Salieri influences the emperor to block lucrative teaching positions for Mozart and limit the exposure his symphonies and operas receive. Eventually, Salieri becomes so consumed with envy, he hatches a deranged, potentially violent scheme to steal Mozart's glory, inflate his own reputation, and stick it to a God that has forever delighted in torturing him.
'Amadeus' is largely fictitious, but it cleverly takes seeds of truth and grows them into a compelling, substantive narrative. Both Mozart and especially Salieri are well-drawn, complex creations, and Peter Shaffer (who won a Tony Award for his play and an Oscar for his adapted screenplay) instills in them a multitude of conflicting qualities. We admire Mozart, but it's hard to like him; we can relate to Salieri, yet can't condone his reprehensible actions. What makes Salieri such a marvelous character is that despite all his ill will, it's impossible for him to temper his unabashed wonder over the perfection of Mozart's music. Sure, he takes glee in sabotaging Mozart, but he's also the composer's biggest fan. And tragically, the pure, simple beauty of Mozart's notes and phrases – music that elevates so many – plunges Salieri's soul into darkness.
Forman and Shaffer transform a rather simple stage play into an epic, injecting 'Amadeus' with pageantry, style, and sophistication, but never letting such elements outshine Mozart's music or the dramatic conflict at the film's core. Throughout its history, Hollywood has struggled to depict composers' lives, but 'Amadeus' finally gets it right by taking a different tack than a standard linear biopic. Most importantly, the music isn't presented as a simple byproduct of Mozart's genius or a pleasant diversion for the audience; it's the most influential character in the drama, driving the actions of both Mozart and Salieri. The Prague locations, lavish costumes, and meticulous set design add immeasurable authenticity, yet Forman makes the atmosphere so relatable, we often forget we're watching a period picture. Today, even more so than when the film was first released 25 years ago, it's easy to see why 'Amadeus' won so many Oscars.
All the acting is terrific, especially Abraham as the tormented, conniving Salieri. His scenes as an elderly man recalling his relationship with Mozart and confessing his sins are riveting, and devoid of the affectations so many less talented performers employ when playing "old." Hulce captures Mozart's randy playfulness and sly conceit, as well as his sober sense of purpose and enslavement to music. His silly laugh becomes grating over time, but, of course, that's the point. As Mozart's commoner wife, Elizabeth Berridge is far better than I remembered her to be, and her no-nonsense, rough-around-the-edges personality nicely contrasts with the stuffy, fawning atmosphere of the emperor's court. (This director's cut more completely develops her relationship with Salieri, and adds more depth to her character and performance.) And in a small supporting role, a teenage Cynthia Nixon ('Sex and the City') makes a notable splash as a naive servant girl Salieri hires to spy on the Mozarts.
On its surface, 'Amadeus' may seem like a story of revenge and bitterness, but it's really about the transformative power of music, and how it can shape and twist fragile human psyches. It's a stirring, impeccably produced work and deserving of all the accolades it received.
Though Warner's 1080p/VC-1 transfer is far from perfect, 'Amadeus' makes a fairly solid transition to Blu-ray, especially when one considers its age. Many scenes err on the soft side, but there's a healthy complement of sharp, well-defined images that burst forth with excellent contrast and vibrant color. Unfortunately, I don't have a standard def DVD on hand to run a side-by-side comparison, but it's tough to believe any previous incarnation of 'Amadeus' could look any better.
Noticeable grain preserves the film-like feel and suits the period setting well, but never garners undue attention, even in dimly lit scenes. There's a lot of color on display – reds are especially lustrous and rich – and the transfer handles the faint variances with ease. Though primaries shine, I was extremely impressed by the delicate pastel tones – powder blues, sea greens, and lavenders – all of which are exceptional. Many costumes flaunt intricate patterns and lots of adornment, but there's never any shimmering or breakup. Blacks possess appropriate depth (the tone really stands out in the gentlemen's jackets), shadow delineation is quite good, and fine details, such as wood grain and the weave of paper documents, can be striking. Close-ups aren't as crisp as those in new releases, but they're revealing enough to catch beads of sweat glistening on the brows of many actors, especially Hulce. Stable, true fleshtones predominate, and Abraham's heavy makeup as the elderly Salieri looks, for the most part, very natural, even in high-def.
Some digital doctoring has been applied to spruce up the image, but it's subtle enough to keep critical characteristics intact. A few close-ups look a bit smooth, but the effects are never so blatant that I felt distressed or annoyed. Without question, 'Amadeus' has benefited enormously from this 1080p upgrade, but the image still can't rival the perfection of its subject's artistry.
And that artistry, of course, is Mozart's glorious music. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter if dialogue is intelligible, surrounds kick in, or effects are distinct on this Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track; the music needs to be damn near perfect. Without proper dynamic range, tonal depth, and a broad sound field, the impact of Mozart's melodies on Salieri personally and the audience at large would not be nearly as great, and the story would suffer. Now, some may say Warner's penchant for 16-bit audio compromises Mozart's musical canon, but I can't imagine a better sonic treatment. From delicate strings to bombastic bursts of brass, from a soprano's trills to a robust basso aria, the track provides exceptionally pure, full-bodied tones with wonderful texture and shadings. Both symphonic and operatic sequences fill the room, immersing the listener in Mozart's playful, elegant, and passionate strains. Close your eyes and you'll swear you've been transported to a cavernous concert hall.
During dramatic scenes, the audio is anchored up front, but noticeable separation enlivens the action, while subtle ambient effects occasionally grace the rears. Dialogue is very well prioritized, so we rarely miss a word of Shaffer's Oscar-winning adaptation, and details such as the palace's squeaky wood floors and the ruffling of the layered period clothing are all vividly rendered. Aside from a few potent rumbles during the Don Giovanni segment, the subwoofer is almost silent, but low end bass is gorgeous whenever the music dips into that register, and conversely, even the highest soprano notes resist distortion. Again, say what you will about 16-bit, but Warner deserves kudos for this one.
'Amadeus' arrives on Blu-ray in a very attractive digibook that cleverly affixes the digital copy disc to the back cover, so it can be easily removed, used, and/or discarded without marring the packaging's integrity. Sandwiched between the Blu-ray disc and an audio CD is a glossy, lavishly illustrated, full-color 36-page booklet that includes production notes, cast and crew profiles, analysis, and trivia. A loose insert describing the various tracks on the supplemental CD is also included (more on that below).
The extras, all of which are in standard definition and ported over from the previous DVD release, are slim in number but meaty in content, and well worth delving into.
Like Mozart's immortal music, 'Amadeus' hasn't lost its luster. The performances, direction, and production values of this absorbing epic continue to impress a quarter century after its initial release. Though the 1080p transfer may not be reference quality, it's still a worthy upgrade, and the crystalline quality of the high-def audio allows us to truly feel Mozart's music as well as hear it. Not all Best Picture winners deserve a spot on your shelf, but 'Amadeus' does, and this handsome Blu-ray collector's edition will please fans and newbies alike.