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AMADEUS
Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones
Director:  Milos Forman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.32:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  180 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

“Do you know who I am?”

“It matters not.  All men are equal in God’s eyes.”

“ARE they??”

Film ****

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…considered by many modern musical scholars to be the greatest composer of all time, he went from a small town child prodigy to a distinguished writer of operas, symphonies and more, yet died virtually penniless and dumped unceremoniously into an unmarked pauper’s grave.

Well, that’s if you subscribe to the life story of the man as poured out in Amadeus.  A simple stage play by Peter Shaffer, it became one of the biggest event movies of the 1980s, winning a staggering eight Academy Awards, critical and popular acclaim, and giving Herr Mozart the biggest career comeback this side of John Travolta.  Nearly twenty years later, it’s a film that remains ingrained in our culture, filled with memorable performances, beautiful sets and costumes, and a lurid tale of jealousy and revenge.  Oh, and let’s not forget the music…extraordinary, emotional scores that became a character in and of itself.

The film isn’t entirely accurate factually, to be sure, but what it forgoes in actual truth, it makes up for with emotional truth.  There continue to be many theories put forth about the circumstances of Mozart’s death, but none so fascinating as the idea that he may have been murdered by a jealous rival.  

An aging musician named Salieri (Abraham, in his Oscar winning role) holds the key to this version of the story.  As he mourns his rapidly disappearing celebrity, he offers a tale of confession to a young priest, and to us, the modern audience as well.

Salieri was the Emperor’s court composer in Vienna, but despite his position of prestige in a town celebrated for its music, he always felt he lived in the shadow of Mozart.  His name was known throughout Europe from the tender age of six…a musical genius who played and composed like a seasoned, schooled pro.

As adults, Mozart becomes an affront to Salieri.  A pious man who sought musical glory from God, the court composer was angered and humiliated that a vulgar, childish, bawdy and immoral “creature” like Mozart seemed to speak with a heavenly voice in the notes he put down on paper.  As Salieri’s anger boils and his faith wanes, he vows to hurt and censor Mozart by any means in his power.

The finale is unforgettable, as Salieri plays on Mozart’s own grief and guilt, and milks one final masterpiece of music out of the great composer while he ebbs away.  It’s a powerful sequence that has me in tears every time I see it.

This new DVD release marks a new director’s cut of the film…twenty minutes longer, it boasts some fresh scenes that are mostly fascinating.  There are minor and mostly cosmetic changes here and there, but there are at least two moments that stand out:  Mozart’s longsuffering wife Constanze (Berridge) proving her love by accepting an unwholesome offer from Salieri (it only humiliates him more), and another sequence, which literally shows how Mozart’s career was…shall we say, going to the dogs?

Fans of the original will find the new footage intriguing and surprising.  Motivations are fleshed out a little more, and lost gems of performances by the lead actors are restored; most notably, Ms. Berridge’s courageous scene that never should have found the cutting room floor.

The male stars shine in unforgettable performances.  Tom Hulce became the modern embodiment of Mozart, with his smirking arrogance and hideous laugh masking some terrible deep-down pains.  He was nominated by the Academy for Best Actor, but that honor went to his co-star, F. Murray Abraham, who injected Salieri with anger, jealously, and ugliness, but never lost sight that those are still very human qualities.  We don’t recoil from him as much as we sympathize with him as a man trapped in his own mediocrity as he watches true greatness unfold in front of him.

But the real treat for me is the music.  The sounds of Mozart’s compositions fill the room, and both accent and comment upon the action in the film.  It alone was a good enough reason to turn the play into a motion picture.  Without the music, you can only hope at best to tell half of the story of Mozart.

Of course, the picture is mostly conjecture instead of fact, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.  In fact, I’d wager the opposite.  Those who were dragged to Amadeus expecting to see a sterile portrait of a classical composer were doubtless surprised and delighted by the scandalous nature of the story, the fearless performances, and the melodrama that played out to the tune of some of the greatest music ever composed.

Mozart was indeed one of a kind, and Amadeus is, too, combining the gorgeousness of a period drama with all the wicked joy of a gossip parlor.  It’s no wonder it’s remained a fan and critical favorite into the new millennium.

Video ***1/2

I never thought Warner’s initial offering of Amadeus looked bad (even if it WAS a flipper), but their new transfer is an improvement.  The colorful world of the old Vienna comes to vivid life with this anamorphic transfer, bringing colors and images to their full natural fruition.  Lower lit scenes using candlelight maintain a great deal of integrity, which is very hard to do.  Only a small handful of them lose a bit of definition and come across a little murky, but that’s a mild complaint at best.  The film has never looked this good on home video before…high marks.

Audio ****

The 5.1 audio is absolutely explosive.  The music is loud, loud, LOUD.  It will vibrate your floor and walls and make you feel like you’ve been transported to a symphony hall.  The dynamic range between the music and the dialogue is nearly immeasurable, therefore.  The rear stage mostly fleshes out the orchestration, which is so clear at times you can pick out every instrument’s part.  Fans of classical music are really going to enjoy this presentation.

Features ****

Though word had it the two men didn’t always get along during the making of the film, director Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer produced a masterpiece together, and they team up for a running commentary here.  The effort is a little sparse from time to time, but should interest serious film students as the two creators spar back and forth with their memories.  That’s on the first disc.

Disc Two contains the original trailer (one of my all time favorites), plus a new documentary with fresh cast and crew interviews (about an hour in length, and very interesting), and some talent files.  A very worthwhile package, though I do miss the music only track featured on the original DVD release.

Summary:

Amadeus…the man, the myth, the mystery, and now the special edition DVD.  This is the kind of movie that was made for the medium, and Warner has pulled out all the stops with their video and audio transfers and features.  This one deserves a place of prestige in your home library.