We look back on 1984’s Amadeus to commemorate the recent loss of its writer Peter Shaffer (and because the DVD was cheap in Sainsbury’s).
This octuple-Oscar-winning drama tells the story of 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and his plans to kill Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), the Wesley Crusher of composing. This is all rather unfair on Salieri, considering there’s about as much evidence that he murdered Mozart as there is that Mozart was tickled to death by pandas. In reality, the two were on quite good terms and Salieri even gave Mozart’s bereaved son free music tutoring. The evil bastard.
Even so, the fabrication is so well executed that it works wonderfully as a fictitious piece of melodrama. Where Shakespeare in Love attempts a similar blending of history and hokum, it only ever feels like a flimsy rom-com set in Shakespearean times. If it’s a Shakespeare play, it’s As You Like It; some decent mistaken identity comedy but you probably wouldn’t pay to watch it standing up unless you’re a hardcore fan of Shakespeare/Gwyneth Paltrow. By contrast, Amadeus is Richard III; throws a historical figure under the bus (or cart) in order to explore essentially human traits: jealousy, ego and mediocrity (though that last one also applies to Gwyneth Paltrow).
Adapting his own play, Shaffer’s great achievement is in drawing classical characters and settings that are instantly recognisable to a modern audience. Even director Miloš Forman’s seemingly odd use of American accents serves to emphasise the parallels between 18th-century Vienna and contemporary celebrity culture. This is amplified by the production design; epic operas and parties elaborately and colourfully recreated, bursting with powdered wigs, Venetian masks and more cleavage than a slasher flick.
Hulce’s Mozart inhabits this world brilliantly. His Wolfy is a giggling schoolboy with a scatological sense of humour (that must be why he wrote so many movements) and one of the best laughs in cinematic history, up there with The Joker himself. Imagine the sound of the laughter if they were both watching Shakespeare in Love. Bad example. Abraham is formidable as Salieri both young and old, his body contorting with longing like Gollum. If Gollum wrote music. That wasn’t just about eating fish. Mozart’s own majestic music plays throughout, loud enough to blow your wig off.
With the notable exception of historical accuracy, Amadeus has it all: music, murder, intrigue, betrayal and dwarves. The world’s a stage and on it, a flagrant reflection of the immutable populism and shallowness of our society. Watch me Amadeus.