Blu-Ray Review: Amadeus

There's this scene in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Last Action Hero, where this kid, Danny, tells Schwarzenegger's Jack Slater, a displaced movie hero, to be wary of the bad guy, played by F. Murray Abraham.

Danny: "Watch it, Jack. He killed Mozart!"

Slater: "In a movie?"

Danny: "Amadeus! It won eight Oscars!"

Well, yes he did and yes the movie did. In fact, one of those eight Oscars went to Abraham and another went to Amadeus for Best Picture. Later in Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger's character is moved by music he hears on a radio.

Slater: "Can you turn that up? What is that?"

Danny's mom: "It's Mozart... You like Mozart?"

Slater: [smiles] "I don't know, but I think I will. Wow."

Thanks to Amadeus, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ("Wolfie" to his friends) left audiences going "Wow," and they pushed the film's original soundtrack album onto the Billboard charts as one of the most popular classical music recordings ever.

But there's a lot more to Amadeus than the music, as testified by all its other awards. This rich and meticulously crafted prestige picture won 40 of its 53 international award nominations, including its Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Abraham won, and co-star Tom Hulce was also nominated in the same category), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Peter Shaffer, from his stage play). It also took the Academy gold for Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

"Wow," indeed.

Now, twenty-five years later, enjoying the justly celebrated Amadeus's Blu-ray edition that Warner Home Video released this week, I get that rarest of experiences with Oscar winners -- I can watch it and see how every one of those awards was well-earned and unquestionably deserved.

Just for starters, we get Abraham's subtle and versatile performance as Antonio Salieri. This would-be musical favorite is driven to murderous scheming by his jealousy of the superior talent that God -- in His infinite capricious effrontery -- chose to bestow upon the "giggling, dirty-minded creature" Mozart. Come to think of it, Amadeus is something of a Cain-and-Abel story, with Salieri as the brother (in music) so jealous of God's obvious favorite, Mozart, that he sets out to spite God and destroy the object of his jealousy.

There's Hulce's dynamic presence as the vulgar, infantile genius who challenges Salieri's pride and piety -- and penis, since that hard-partying horn-dog Mozart gets the women that the chaste and self-denying Salieri only lusts after. (And, let me tell you, Hulce in Amadeus was a real surprise for those of us who'd seen Animal House a dozen times.)

Then we get swallowed up by all those opulent and detailed 18th-century sets and locations and costumes. They're amped to the max by Miroslav Ondrícek's sumptuous Oscar-nominated cinematography and director Forman's uncanny ability to immerse us in another time and place so deeply we can almost smell it.

In the commentary track on this disc, Forman emphasizes how important it is to cast even the small roles with the most distinctive talent at your disposal. Jeffrey Jones' dryly comic turn as Emperor Joseph II made "too many notes" a buzz-phrase with ongoing staying power. Move on down the cast and we see memorable work from Christine Ebersole, Simon Callow, and look! -- there's Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon, just 18 when Amadeus premiered, movingly freaking out as the maidservant Salieri hires to spy on Mozart.

Not to mention all the music from that notorious young radical -- chamber pieces for popes and archbishops and emperors, bold symphonies and operas that middle-finger-flipped the status quo, comic vaudevilles and irreverent spoofs -- all supervised for the film by Sir Neville Marriner himself. It's intoxicating stuff. Like Schwarzenegger's tough-guy action hero, if you don't like Mozart now, give Amadeus a spin. I repeat: Wow!

This Blu-ray release brings home Amadeus by upgrading to high-def the master source used for Warner Home Video's 2002 Special Edition Director's Cut. That DVD edition added about twenty minutes of footage to the original theatrical release. While none of the new footage is pivotal -- some scene extensions, an entire new scene reaffirming Mozart's financial desperation, a surprising sample of frontal nudity about half-way in -- none of the additions detract from or muddy the theatrical cut.

(About the nude scene: in their commentary track, director Forman and screenwriter Shaffer talk about why it was cut originally -- studio pressure to trim the film's run-time, plus, says Shaffer, "I was sick of nude scenes!" -- and why they reinstated it here. The scene, they tell us, shows how far Constanze is willing to sacrifice for the man she loves, and it certainly gives the movie's final confrontation between Salieri and Constanze more teeth. Besides, Shaffer, obviously feeling better, quite likes it now.)

The 1080p high-definition image really brings out the nearly tactile richness of Amadeus's densely packed canvas. Color, contrast, tone, and sharpness are improved over the DVD from seven years ago. However, unlike other Big Deal movies recently transferred to Blu-ray -- The Godfather or Casablanca, for example -- Amadeus didn't receive an all-new remastering special for its debut in this new format. Plus, some "digital noise reduction" applied to the transfer tends to filter out some of the finest-grain detail that can be packed into a Blu-ray disc's extra capacity at 1080p resolution.

The good news is that the film has never looked better on home video than it does here on Blu-ray. It really is a gorgeous and superior release. However, it is not "reference quality" in terms of how closely this disc could have reproduced Amadeus's original big-screen cinematic visual detail. Now, if you're not one of the sharper-eyed cineastes with a dedicated big-screen home-theater environment and a passion for fidelity to original "film-like" reproductions, this probably won't be a serious concern for you. If you don't already own the older DVD, you can trust this Blu-ray edition to present an exceptional transfer and a worthy addition to any home film library. If do you already own the 2002 Director's Cut DVD and are happy with it, rather than automatically recommending a trade-up I'd suggest renting the Blu-ray to check it out first, then decide if the improvement is enough to get you driving away in this year's model.

What I was more interested in checking out was how well the Blu-ray's optional TrueHD lossless 5.1 surround audio rattled my walls and vibrated the dust on my DVD shelves. After all, on the commentary track both Forman and Shaffer agree that the music they used throughout the film ended up being one of Amadeus's most important characters. Here again I was pleased with the boost from DVD even if the improvement didn't blow me away. The previous DVD's Dolby 5.1 audio (the default option on this Blu-ray) was excellent but restricted by digital compression. This disc's new uncompressed TrueHD encoding allows the full sound to open up to a warmer breadth and depth, with finer detail and fidelity in instrumentation from the highest oboe solo to the deepest basses booming in the orchestras. However, again, this is not a new remix of the audio track from the previous DVD. Having Mozart's music wrap so cleanly and fully around my head is a pretty sweet way to spend some movie time, so I can recommend the Blu-ray's audio upgrade as a noticeable improvement even though, if you already own the previous DVD, not necessarily a crucial one.

The previous DVD's extras are here too. They're few in number but each is gold.

First up is the terrific audio commentary with Forman and Shaffer. As a thorough and relaxed chat about the production and its cast from two of the movie's most esteemed creative talents, it's remarkably un-stuffy. Forman reveals his dry sense of humor from the first scene and doesn't let go of it. They tell all sorts of good stories about managing a production of this scale under conditions far away from the more controlled chaos of a big studio.

For instance, shooting in Prague under the watchful eyes of Czechoslovakia's suspicious communist authorities created its own travails. Forman almost wasn't allowed to shoot a scene on a historic Catholic location after a Secret Police agent told the Archbishop of Prague that Forman was going to shoot a wild orgy on the spot. (Czech-born Forman notes that he had "connections" that helped him smooth waters with the State on one hand and with the Church on the other.) On lighting the grand opera scenes with historical accuracy, Forman laughs, "I think we kept the Italian candle industry booming for a year." When discussing the ear-piercing screech Hulce used for Mozart's infamous laugh, Shaffer demonstrates what he had in mind for the laugh when he wrote the play. Forman, not impressed with the author's "sleazy" giggle, advises him, "Don't play Mozart." This is one of the more listenable and informative commentary tracks on the shelves, and having it dished up by these two renowned talents is icing on the towering Viennese cake.

The only other big extra here is the hour-long featurette, The Making of Amadeus. And again, it's one of the best making-of pieces I've seen in years. For one thing, it looks like it was produced by first-rank pros, without the whiff of Marketing Department amateur-hour that cripples so many "making of" pieces we get on discs. The complete history of the production, starting with Forman's initial reluctance to even see Shaffer's original stage play and the "bumpy" relationship their two egos had while working on the movie's script, is revealingly told -- aided by footage from behind the scenes and the film's final cut -- by Forman, Shaffer, the cast, Sir Neville Marriner, and others. Some of the info here is repeated on the commentary track, but again the sit-down chat we share here is lightened with the genuine affection and sometimes snarky humor the participants share with each other. For a fan of the film, this is another essential part of the experience.

The only other carry-over extra is the theatrical trailer.

New for this edition is a Digital Copy Disc that lets you load a Windows Media copy of the film onto your computer or portable device (very cool) and a Bonus CD with an hour's worth of more Mozart music recorded by Sir Neville Marriner. (I'm listening to it right now, in fact.) My only gripe here is that the CD's liner notes are printed on a loose sheet rather than affixed to the packaging. So the sheet has to be removed when you open the case or else it's just in the way.

About the packaging: Amadeus on Blu-ray comes in a handsome book-like case that opens with the Blu-ray disc on one side and the CD on the other. In between is the Digital Copy Disc (loose in a sleeve) and a 36-page production booklet (attached at the spine) with cast/crew bios and color images from the film.

So, yes ... wow. And bravo, maestro.