Amadeus - The Director's Cut Review
When released in 1984, the original version of Amadeus was highly acclaimed, the winner of 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay – all of them richly deserved. Earlier this year a Director’s Cut of the film was released with 20 minutes of additional material that had never been seen before. Is it possible to improve on an already brilliant film or would tampering with it only dilute its effectiveness? Thankfully, while the new material is welcome, it makes little difference either positively or negatively.
F Murray Abraham plays Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer who has dedicated his whole life to God and to music in the hopes of being a great composer. Through extremely hard work he succeeds in being acclaimed in Vienna and is appointed to the position of Court Composer to the Emperor Joseph II of Austria. But when Mozart arrives in Vienna after being the talk of all Europe, Salieri realises that talent, hard-work and success is one thing, but God-given genius is another. To his astonishment and disbelief, he realises immediately that God has given an incredible musical talent to a child that he regards as nothing more than an ill-mannered, vulgar buffoon – a “creature” unworthy of the gifts that have been bestowed upon him. These gifts should surely have been given to a worthier candidate such as himself. Tortured by the unfairness of the situation and in the knowledge that he will never achieve such levels of greatness, he vows to do everything in his power to frustrate the success of Mozart - even if it means driving him to his death.
Adapted from Peter Shaffer’s immaculately staged and constructed play, the film retains the flashback structure of the formerly great composer Antonio Salieri, now confined to a wheelchair in a lunatic asylum, telling the story of how he came to kill Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the greatest composer who ever lived. The structure is a masterstroke and works tremendously well not only on stage, but transfers perfectly to the cinema screen. Seeing events unfold from the viewpoint of the reminiscences of an embittered and cynical rival, but one who is capable of recognising true genius, imbues the script with wit, irony, humour and tragedy. All of this is inherent within the story, but the dramatic device by which they are presented could hardly be more effective.
It is hard not to wish for a better or more distinguished actor than Tom Hulce (National Lampoon’s Animal House) to play the role of Mozart, but that of course is the intention and is a very brave but entirely appropriate bit of casting. You are meant to feel confused and even embarrassed that this clown, this buffoon, could possibly be the greatest and most gifted composer Vienna had ever seen.
It doesn’t matter that the script is riddled with inaccuracies. The details of Mozart’s life are sketchy anyway and subject to much disagreement among scholars. Although he died at the age of 35, Mozart wrote his first composition at six and by the age of twenty had already written thirty symphonies, several piano and violin concertos, a dozen string quartets and many sonatas. When he died in 1791 he had composed more than six hundred pieces. Compressing such a life into a three-hour film gives scant indication of the prodigious and prolific talent of the composer. Thankfully, the film doesn’t even attempt to do justice to Mozart’s life, but what it does achieve is no less ambitious. The film is an examination of the legacies of history, the inequities of life and what it is that creates, inspires and fires creative genius. It’s no small ambition for a film and it is to the great credit of all involved that the film achieves so much.
It is also to the credit of the film-makers that appropriate recognition was given to the music. The film richly deserves all its awards for film-making, acting and costume design, but all would be empty without the due attention given to the music. The choice of music is excellent throughout, covering the whole range and colour of Mozart’s compositions – lyrical, grand, dramatic, stately, playful and pious. The contribution of Sir Neville Marriner can’t be underestimated here. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the film and the one that Peter Shaffer is most proud of, is that Amadeus brought Mozart’s music to a huge international audience. There is no doubt that Mozart’s importance as a composer was well-recognised long before Amadeus, but the film has played a huge part in making that music recognisable and accessible to a much larger public.
It is the music then that plays such a vital, essential and pivotal role in lifting this film from being merely well-crafted to utterly brilliant. Several times the film successfully conveys the sense of awe that Salieri feels faced hearing music the like of which he has never believed possible. When he looks upon Mozart’s manuscripts it is as if we are looking at a precious document, the voice of God poured onto a page through an unlikely human vessel. The scene showing the composition of the Requiem - a long scene of two composers sitting writing music - is a piece of bravura film-making. It works precisely because of the strength of the music, which Shaffer and Forman regard as almost a third character, underscoring the scene with tremendous emotional force and while it is an entirely fictitious scenario, it nevertheless is true in conveying the essence of what the piece is about.
New scenes and extra material added for the director’s cut are helpfully indicated on the chapter listings on the DVD case. The early scenes in the film don’t contain anything significantly new. A few existing scenes are almost imperceptibly extended. The middle section features more substantial additions which have the effect of rounding out the character of Costanze and showing a much finer performance from Elizabeth Berridge than has previously been acknowledged. A brief nude scene featuring the actress has been added which has raised the film’s certificate, incredibly, to an ‘R’ for the American release. There is little else to be gained from the expanded material other than adding a few more touches of local colour to the period settings in Prague (standing in well for the Vienna of the time). The new material does not slow down the development of the film so their presence is not at all unwelcome.
The latter half of the film remains exactly as it was in the original release. Personally, I don’t think there is anything in cinema as moving, affecting and utterly tragic as the burial of Mozart in a communal pauper’s grave to the strains of the Lacrymosa from the Requiem.
This is a gorgeous looking film and the picture here is very good - about as good as you could reasonably expect it to be. Colours are muted, not glaring - but superbly and realistically balanced. Skin tones however can still appear too pinkish or red at times. There are one or two white dust spots visible now and again, but not frequently and they are barely discernible. On the whole the picture is sharp, clear and balanced, displaying strong blacks and colour tones. It is not perfect but extremely good nevertheless. It is a considerable improvement on the original flipper release which was anamorphic and certainly adequate, but much more grainy and too colour saturated.
The two scans below show the differences – the new version above is sharper. It appears to not be as brightly coloured, but examination of the lower picture from the original release shows too much redness, so this is not really the case. Contrast the redness on Jeffrey Jones' costume with the better whites in the new version. Also noticeable from the two screenshots is the extra information to the sides, top and bottom.
Again the sound is slightly improved from the original release, but not greatly. Comparing the opera scene from Die Entführung aus dem Serail the results are mixed. The 5.1 mix on the old version seems to have better separation with strong choral accompaniment from the rear speakers, but on closer examination the sound is actually quite thin giving a false impression of brightness in comparison to the fuller, more rounded mix on the new release.Voices are principally on centre speaker and not quite as good as you would find on a modern release. In comparison to the old release there is clearly less noise on the soundtrack, so it would seem that new noise reduction has been applied, leading to voices sounding slightly dull and muffled. Overall though, the new sound mix must be seen as preferable to the old. One sad omission is the loss of the isolated music score that was on the original release.
Disc one features a commentary with the two key film-makers, director Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer. Having two such characters together makes for an excellent commentary, as they each bounce reminiscences and observations off each other. Occasionally they get distracted by a scene or by the music and lapse into silence, but ever mindful of their duty they get back on track and cover just about everything you would want to know. Rather than focus on boring technical details they talk about casting the actors, choosing locations and lots of historical background information on the stunning palaces used and the troubles they had getting into them. There is further interesting speculation on Mozart’s life and the possible cause of his death here. Some distance from the project makes this much more interesting than a commentary on most recent films.
The rest of the extras are on disc 2. The original theatrical trailer is included – an excellent advertisement showing the whole dynamic scope of the film – the beautiful sets, locations, costumes, performances and of course the remarkable music set against a story of murder, intrigue and tragedy.
The Making of Amadeus (1:00:37)
There is a full hour-long documentary on disc 2, broken down into 15 chapters, with interviews with every key player in the film – Milos Forman, Peter Shaffer, Saul Zaentz, Sir Neville Marriner, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Jones, F Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Berridge, Vincent Schiavelli and Twyla Tharp. There are lots of great anecdotes about the casting, shooting and working with Forman. The decision to shoot in a Soviet Bloc country was fraught with difficulties and run-ins with the KGB, but using the Prague Opera House – the only surviving theatre where Mozart actually conducted, clearly inspired everyone who worked there on the film. Having seen a production of Don Giovanni in this very same theatre where Mozart conducted the premiere, I can testify to the tremendous atmosphere and historical significance that the theatre is seeped in. This is a superb documentary and very worthwhile again showing that the best and most interesting extra features are those where the film merits examination and where there is some distance from when the film was made.
Does Amadeus shed any light on or offer any great insights into the life of a great composer? Not really. The film skips most of the composer’s early career and there is no mention of Mozart’s Catholicism or involvement with the Freemasons, all of which were important parts of his life. Cinema is far too limiting a medium to explore such an complex and enigmatic character – instead it presents us with a superbly formed essay on Mozart’s music and on music in general, speculating on what inspires such a creation and the effect it has on us. Through necessity, the scope of Amadeus is narrow but focussed and in its new format, it remains fresh, convincing and believable and ever more a remarkable achievement.