I was 9 years old when this movie came out in 1984, and my parents went to see it without me (I would discover it on television soon after). I remember that they dressed up as if they were going to the theater and were appalled that people had shown up to the cinema in jeans and shorts. To see a movie about MOZART, forsooth! They talked rapturously about it with my piano teacher, and I listened jealously. This was a point in my life when I was completely unaware of the Oscars and the honors lavished on this film the next spring. But this has been a very important movie to me for most of my life, and it's a case of a great movie that has only gotten better with age (both the movie's age and my own).
My first vivid memory of the film was always the horror of the Salieri's suicide attempt, which for the longest time I could not watch - a fact that seems hilarious to me now. There are many moments in the film, though, that have lived in my memory for a long, long time. At the center of this fantastic movie are two phenomenal performances. F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) would each go on to be nominated for Academy Awards, and when Abraham won, he paid tribute to his co-star and on-screen rival by saying that the only thing missing from the experience was having Hulce standing at his side.
The first thing to note about this film, which was written by Peter Shaffer (who also wrote Equus), adapted from his own 1979 play, is that it is not a biography. It is a highly fictionalized story about real people. Mozart's (and Salieri's) music is heavily featured throughout and is an essential piece of the storytelling. Perhaps more than anything else, though, what it is "about" is the nature of genius and the appreciation of it. It may be a cliche to say that a true genius is never appreciated in his/her own time, but I have to say that seeing this film again in the context of an Oscar season puts a fascinating new spin on it. With all the arguments over what the "best" film of the year is and many people feeling (as if this is anything new) that the frontrunner is merely a sentimental favorite rather than a genuinely great work, I can't help thinking of Mozart and Salieri. One was perhaps the greatest composer who has ever lived but, at least as the film portrays him, he was not the most popular composer of his day because he was ahead of his time in so many ways and because he was not a toady of the Emperor's Court. The other man had musical talent - was quite good in fact - and received many honors and accolades while he lived but was all but forgotten by history (until Shaffer's play and the film brought him back to people's attention). Salieri receives medals and commendations by the Emperor who calls one of his works "the greatest opera yet written." Mozart, on the other hand, sees his own opera, La Nozze di Figaro (arguably his greatest work), pilloried and parodied on the vaudeville stage as if it were part of one of those awful pop culture pastiche movies like Not Another Teen Movie. Mozart obviously got the better deal in the long run, but we can only see that conclusion through the long lens of history.
I won't go through a play-by-play of the film, because there is far too much to say. I will just leave you with my two favorite moments from the film, both of which are key musical moments as well. In the first, we're watching the premiere of La Nozze di Figaro. Salieri, despite his resentment, cannot but marvel at the beauty of the piece. Abraham's narration is absolutely perfect here, putting each word in precisely the right place in the music so that he only adds and never takes away from it. This part of the opera, by the way, is probably my favorite piece of music ever, I'm sure in no small part due to the meaning Abraham gives to it in this scene.
Of course, before we can get too carried away, there is that yawn which changes the tone utterly and irrevocably, followed by another scene that spookily mirrors the film criticism world (to me, anyway). Salieri suggests that Mozart's opera was too long, and that he should have given the audience a big bang at the end of songs to let them know when to clap. I've seen loads of film critics say comparable things about films, to say nothing of snap judging a film because it doesn't have "X" or "Y" in it. Or, you know, snap judging at all (Incidentally, I think Twitter has been the worst thing to happen to film criticism in a great many years - how can you possibly judge something adequately before you've had a chance to think about it?).
And then there is this moment. I don't know how much you may know about sound mixing. I'm pretty ignorant about it myself, but it's really hard not to see how massively important it is to this scene (and the one embedded above, for that matter). Mozart, on his sickbed, is dictating part of his Requiem, specifically the "Confutatis," to Salieri. You hear each piece of the whole by itself, as Mozart dictates, and when he finally looks at the whole thing you hear it all together and can see what each little piece brings to the whole. I've heard this piece of music many, many times since first seeing this film, and I never fail to marvel at all those amazing little pieces.
There is a director's cut of this, which adds a great deal of character development, but which doesn't flow quite as well as the theatrical cut, in my opinion. This is a perfect film in every way. If you have not yet seen it, by all means do so. It is definitely not one of those "eat your spinach, it's good for you" period movies. It is bold and hilarious and moving and is a movie I could watch again and again and again. Even if you have resisted because you don't like classical music, this film could very well make you a newborn fan.