A review requested by Bryan L, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

To begin with, we have here a biopic - and does any genre so reliably connote "this is a well-polished and achingly handsome lump of Serious Art that's not terribly artistic and even less entertaining" than the biopic? And not just any biopic - it's part of maybe the most diabolically prestigious and inert subgenre, the biopic of an important classical musician, which has produced such ever-forgettable lead weights as The Great Waltz (Johann Strauss) and A Song to Remember (Frédéric Chopin), and has stretched all the way into the 21st Century with the likes of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. Besides, it's a powerfully murky biopic: the incredibly famous title character isn't actually the subject or the protagonist, but in deference to his fame, the movie keeps ceding huge chunks of attention to him that leave it damned confusing what the actual story is that the filmmakers aimed to tell.

And yet, Amadeus is one of the best American films of the 1980s. So it just goes to show, never prejudge.

The 1984 film is based on the 1979 play by Peter Shaffer, who did a rather thorough job of re-imagining the material for its journey into cinemas, but either way, the core is the same: the relationship of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), between Mozart's 1781 arrival in Vienna, where Salieri served as artistic director for the Italian operas of the Hapsburg court, and the former's death in that city in 1791, at the age of 35. It is an enormously fictionalised version of that story, though it should be pointed out that the single biggest lie that Amadeus has popularised - that a jealous Salieri murdered Mozart with poison - is one that the film very specifically and as a key element of its plot doesn't depict (it also doesn't, technically, indicate that Salieri was a mediocre hack, only that he perceived himself as such relative to Mozart. And so these two unfair characterisations of Salieri - the talentless murderer - are the film's great popular legacies through no fault of its own).

So disinterested is Shaffer in actual sober history, in fact, that to call Amadeus a biography, in either medium, is something of an inaccuracy. It's more of a psychological fable told using real historical figures to give it an imposing weight; that, and to celebrate in front of the widest available audience the peerless sophistication and beauty of Mozart's music, lengthy passages of which are played all throughout the rather long movie as Shaffer hands enormous blocks of dialogue to Abraham to elucidate using only somewhat dumbed-down musicology exactly what it is about Mozart that should cause all of us to regard him as one of the half-dozen greatest composers of music in the history of European culture.

And that's a great and worthy goal, one that Amadeus only slightly muffs by handing off all of its music cues to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, as conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, who generally leans on an annoying tendency to rush through the music like he's terrified of losing his dinner reservation. But ultimately, "provide a showcase for Mozart's Greatest Hits" isn't remotely the reason that Amadeus is great drama and great cinema (many a tepid workaday biopic has also been a splendid Greatest Hits showcase).

For that, we turn instead to the excellent performances and cutting characterisations in the script, as well as the vivid and fleshy production overseen by director Miloš Forman, in what I will happily identify as his best work in English. The film is not the first nor the last, but among the most successful of all attempts to revivify a culture dead for 200 years using sharp contemporary style; the vast majority of costume dramas have a marked tendency to look poised, stuffed, and mounted, but in the hands of Forman, who came of age in the raw, direct naturalism of the Czech New Wave, 18th Century Vienna is full of sarcasm and ass-kissing and bitterness and flustered movement just like the contemporary world. It's a period film that was shot as though it took place in modern-day Los Angeles; Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček (who'd worked with the director, on and off, from the beginning of both their careers) don't bother with painterly lighting or compositions, in some desperate attempt to ape Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (which perfected that style and has never been remotely equaled); they dive right in and capture the color, line, and texture of the dressed-up Prague locations, and of Theodor Pištěk's costumes (rather more fanciful than accurate) with the same intention to find the blunt reality of things that served them as young Czechs attempting to tear holes in the fabric of Communism.

This unsentimental way of film interiors and exteriors alike with a kind of blank-faced present-ness is perfectly matched by the two most important performances, Abraham's and Hulce's - the cast as a whole is wildly inconsistent, ranging from Jeffrey Jones's marvelously and perfectly unfocused Emperor Joseph II, to Elizabeth Berridge's whingey, breathy take on Mozart's wife, but it's essentially a two-hander with a lot of people standing on the sidelines cheering. It's not always subtle acting that's going on: theater actor Hulce's only meaningfully visible film role to that point was in the low-brow comedy Animal House, and he brings a lot of that exact energy to his manic, filthy Mozart, with an unavoidably irritating laugh. Abraham is a bit more nuanced, mostly because the character he's playing is a facile liar, who does his level best to seem pleasant when he is scheming and wrathful. What matters about both of them, mostly, is their resolute modernism: the very conscious layering of psychology and the small physical gestures (Abraham's performance as an old man recounting the story to an increasingly horrified priest is full of some absurdly wonderful facial expressions and gestures - his inward-looking smugness on "Everybody liked me. I liked myself" is my favorite beat in the entire film) that speak to fussy stage-trained acting, and that fills this very old-fashioned mise en scène with very hard contemporary attitude that goes beyond such things as the evocation of punk rockers in Hulce's wigs. It is a study of 20th Century attitudes towards jealousy and faith that places 20th Century men, incongruously but effectively, into 1780s Vienna and does not comment on it.

But in that very lack of commentary, Amadeus comes alive. It's not the kind costume drama that brings a long-dead place back to life; while the film's Vienna is persuasive, and Twyla Tharp's staging of several Mozart operas winningly looks back the poshest stagecraft of a long-dead era, and the film-long obsession with food of the Viennese upper classes (which serves more as a character detail for Salieri than a piece of world-building) is lavish, if not always totally appetizing, it would be difficult to argue for Amadeus the merit of scrupulous historical accuracy. The dialogue doesn't support that; the general indifference to verifiable facts in the matter of its subjects' lives certainly doesn't support that. The film triumphs above all things as a character study, played by two remarkably fine actors in peak form, providing a chance for its very modern audience to reflect on very recognisable feelings of envy towards people we know damn good and well to be more capable than ourselves, "fairness" be damned; the period trappings are, as much as they are anything, a way of heightening those feelings by making them seem weird and fresh.

Or even more simply: the thing Amadeus primarily depicts, biopically-speaking, is the writing of operas - a dramatic form in which strong emotions are presented in a heavily artificial matrix of absurd plot and florid singing. And because of that artifice, the emotions are more immediately accessible. And that's basically the exact same thing Amadeus is doing: the mechanism of the artifice is different, but the intensity, lack of subtlety, and thus the accessibility, they're all the same. It's a prose opera. Form and content meet and seamlessly blend. Terrific stuff.

N.B. I: To prove that I can be at least a little bit critical, take a gander at that tagline. "The man... The music... The madness... The murder... The motion picture". Is that not literally the worst copy in the history of film advertising?

N.B. II: There exists a director's cut; it is far easier to see the film in that format now than its original theatrical version. I prefer the older, shorter cut; the extended version overexplains things that were perfectly clear without being laboriously spelled out, and it badly affects the flow of a 160-minute film that starts to feel puffy at three hours. One might say, of the theatrical cut, "Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall".