Amadeus plays on Turner Classic Movies on Tuesday, February 22, as part of the channel’s “31 Days of Oscar” festival. I wrote an essay for the TCM website in conjunction with the broadcast screening.
Based loosely on the lives of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most revered composers of all time, and Antonio Salieri, the once respected but long-since forgotten court composer of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, Austria, in the latter years of the 18th century, Amadeus (1984) is a not a traditional historical drama in any sense of the term. Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play and subsequent screenplay adaptation, partially inspired by a 19th century play by Alexander Pushkin and subsequent opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, takes the lives of these artists as a starting point for a highly fictionalized drama of envy and audacity; it’s the anguished cry of a cultured artist with aspirations beyond his talents who declares war against a crude, boorish young man who has been graced with the genius he so desperately craves.
The story of Salieri’s pathological jealousy and scheming attempts to sabotage Mozart’s reputation and career is historically dubious to say the least–historians have noted that their professional rivalry was also marked by mutual respect and they even collaborated on a (now lost) cantata–and his “mediocrity” a matter of context. Salieri was an influential composer and teacher in his day, no genius but a consistent creator of popular works whose work (like those of so many of his contemporaries) fell out of favor while the undeniably magnificent work of Mozart became part of the classical canon. But it is that contrast between the revered and the forgotten that makes Amadeus so compelling, with the aging artist living out his life in the shadow of the dead Mozart and recounting the story of how he killed Mozart (or so he says) to a dubious priest.
Plays Tuesday, February 22 on TCM. Also available on DVD and Blu-ray.