One of the most visceral film-going experiences of my life was when, in 1984, I saw Miloš Forman‘s Amadeus. I was in the eighth grade and had just begun to suspect that movies could be more than commercial blockbusters or teen love stories. From watching old black and white movies with my dad and listening to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert‘s reviews I began to understand how much art and craft there was to filmmaking. And then I saw Amadeus in the theater with all of the size, scope, and sound it deserves. Never before had I witnessed that caliber of performances, or seen sets with such exuberant extravagance, costumes with such flouncy flair or heard such masterful music. It was intoxicating. This all-encompassing experience has impacted my life ever since.
From the moment the film opens in the harrowing 18th-century mental institution with Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) attempting to explain the depth of his pain, I was completely drawn into the film. What kind of demon could have caused his lifelong wounds and heartbreak?
The story of Amadeus is as decadently layered as Mozart’s music. Antonio Salieri is a struggling composer working tirelessly to please the court. He teaches voice lessons and music to the rich to supplement what he believes is his God-given talent. But when he hears the music produced by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he questions every aspect of his life, his faith and the world. Salieri is played with aplomb by F. Murray Abraham who’s performance is at once subtle and grand, theatrical and refined.
Amadeus is a boy wonder who produces an astounding quality and quantity of work with an ease that Salieri can only dream of. Mozart doesn’t only possess a more obvious and easy gift of music, he also seduces easily, lives without fear of appearance or reproach, and bites deeply into all of the parts of life that Salieri holds himself back from. The impassioned and tireless performance of Tom Hulce as Mozart serves as the perfect foil for Abraham’s Salieri. He is plucky and naïve, endearing and arrogant, a genius and an idiot and ever-charming.
Mozart has his own demons. He has a Shakespearean fear of and guilt towards his demon-like father. Having never sufficiently pleased him, Mozart feels his disapproving presence everywhere, even as he raises to the highest levels of fame and notoriety. Salieri and Mozart work with and around each other and cannot seem to find a peaceful way to coexist. Both end their lives in a swirl towards madness. Is it genius? Is it rage? Or jealousy? Envy? Passion? The drink? Or maybe some undefinable combinations of all?
I was far from the only appreciator of this incredible film as it went on to receive a slew of awards and accolades including the Best Picture, Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Best Director and more at the Academy Awards.
Although most will remember Forman for One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, I will always be thankful for Amadeus, which not only lead me to appreciate fine film, but also encouraged me to buy my first Classical music cassette tape, which I listened to on my Walkman on the bus to and from school, while I dreamed of bigger things.