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Everything you ever wanted to know about Amadeus.

Book Review: Music on Film: Amadeus by Ray Morton

The Music on Film series from Limelight editions is a series of pocket sized studies of individual films where music is a central element. Some have been studies of musicals: West Side Story and Cabaret. Some have dealt with films that have significant musical components, but are not what you would call musicals: This is Spinal Tap and the forthcoming, A Hard Day’s Night. Ray Morton’s study of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus is in the latter category. His study focuses less on the music than it does on the film, its sources and its production. Like other books in the series, it provides an information packed introduction to a work of cinematic importance in a bite size portion. It is not quite what you would call a scholarly work. It lacks the documentation that the Cabaret volume has, but it does have a bibliography and an index. Still, it does not short the reader on detail.

There is biographical information on both Mozart and Salieri, not comprehensive biographies, but enough information to give readers an adequate idea of the real men portrayed in the film. There is also biographical information about all the major players in the production of the film:  the playwright and eventual screen writer, Peter Schaffer; the director, Milos Forman; producer, Saul Zaentz; as well as the featured cast members, F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. Although I question the relevance of much of the information about these lives that Morton sees fit to include, it is usually interesting information and never becomes obtrusive. At worst it seems like filler.

More germane is his commentary on the themes of the play and the movie and his discussion of the changes Schaffer and Forman agreed upon to transfer the play from the stage to the screen. Schaffer, Morton tells us, was interested in writing a play not so much about Salieri’s war with Mozart, as he was with Salieri’s war with God. Schaffer created in Salieri an artist who had dedicated his life to virtue and looked to God to reward him with genius, only to discover that virtue wasn’t always rewarded. The Mozart Schaffer created on the other hand is a silly immoralist on the one hand, and a musical genius on the other. Virtue, indeed even wisdom, it seems has nothing to do with artistic merit. It is a truth worth parsing. Schaffer uses rumors of Salieri’s involvement in Mozart’s death to develop his tale, and while significant changes were made in the revisions of the play for the film, the basic theme remained the same, and in a sense became even more emphatic.

The film makes much greater use of Mozart’s music than the stage version. Schaffer, Morton tells us, felt that too much music in the theatre has the feel of a concert. Sir Neville Marriner, perhaps the era’s pre-eminent interpreter of Mozart’s music was engaged to record the music, after it was agreed that the music would be used the way it was written, and not rejiggered for dramatic purposes. Actors had to learn to play instruments and conduct so that their movements would look realistic on the big screen. Period instruments were not used because Marriner felt they were unreliable, and wouldn’t provide the kind of sound the film needed.

Filming was done in Czechoslovakia, despite the fact that Forman who had left the Communist controlled country and become an American citizen, had not been allowed back in the country. It seems the Communists couldn’t see their way to turn down the millions of dollars the film’s production would bring to their economy and allowed him to return to make his movie. Prague was chosen because it still had the kind of eighteenth century architecture prevalent during Mozart’s lifetime. The Communist regime had never had the means to modernize the city. Besides it was cheaper to film In Czechoslovakia. There were problems —  secret police embedded in the crew, poor food, cultural differences — but these faded in the light of budgetary considerations. After all, it turns out the Czech crew will work late for a ten dollar bill or a pair of designer jeans.

This is the kind of detail that brings life to Morton’s book. There are many others. Margaret Thatcher objects to Schaffer’s play because she feels that Mozart could never have been that way. Hulce deliberately drops lines in the scene where the dying composer dictates the Requiem to Salieri. Meg Tilly has to be replaced at the last minute because she is injured playing soccer with some children. Elizabeth Berridge, her replacement, is told she got the part because the other actress being considered was too pretty. Al Pacino, among others, was interested in playing Salieri. These are just a few examples.

Morton has not written a pedantic study. This may not be a book for all readers, but it is both lively and engaging. Film buffs will find it fascinating. Theatre lovers will love it. And the general readers, if by chance they happen to pick it up, they will happily find much to entertain them.

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