Music History: October 26th (1984)

Alternative Facts: "Amadeus" Opens in Cinemas

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Malte Hemmerich
Malte Hemmerich
10/26/2019

Facts can be pretty dull. While the increasing absence of facts in the world of politics has left us shaking our heads in disbelief, the world of entertainment has always had carte blanche to take a creative approach to the truth. All the more so when the protagonists and their families are no longer around to defend themselves.

On October 26th 1984, Miloš Forman's Amadeus opened in German cinemas. The director had already wowed critics with his One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; now, he had turned his hand to a music history film. Millions of viewers flocked to cinemas to see the biopic of the most famous of all classical composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and with takings of 52 million US dollars, it was one of the most 15 successful films of the year. In 1984, classical wasn't just a niche interest. How did Forman pull it off? 

Amadeus gross

Tom Hulce's keyed-up Wolferl.

The key to the movie's success was very probably its fabricated story, which pits Mozart against a rival - the perfect formula for Hollywood hit. In fact, the rival already featured in Peter Shaffer's stage play on which the film is based. Mozart's life story is told from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, Mozart's supposed nemesis. Let's leave to one side the fact that Salieri was actually more successful than Mozart at the time, and so had no reason to be jealous of him. What's harder to ignore is the film's claim that he tried to poison Mozart, which seems tantamount to character assassination. What's more, in the film, Mozart's student Süssmayr, his assistant during his final attempts to compose his Requiem, is replaced by Salieri. Dramatic license transforms him into both a major antagonist and protagonist in Mozart's story. 

It seems that even the eventful life of the restless Wolfgang Amadé needed spicing up for cinema audiences. It's hard to imagine how many scriptwriters it would take to transform the sedate life of someone like Mendelssohn-Bartholdy into suitable fodder for the multiplexes. But enough complaining. Amadeus also has its strong points - for example its close attention to the power and idiosyncrasies of Mozart's music. 

Composed by Mozart alone: the first part of his "Requiem"

Since Amadeus, no other film about classical music and composers has come close to replicating its success. The critics and the Oscar jury evidently had no interest in sticking up for Süssmayr. The film was celebrated and garnished with awards, not as a biopic, but as an entertaining, free-wheeling Mozart film - and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

It's a nice twist that at the Oscar ceremony, Tom Hulce's Mozart had to concede defeat to Fahrid Murray Abraham's Salieri in the Best Actor category. Perhaps it's easier to play a villain than a genius. ¶

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