Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: Director's Cut
DVD - Image B+ Sound B Extras B+
BD - Image B Sound A Extras A
starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow
screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play
directed by Milos Forman
by Walter Chaw Bringing the highbrow to the status-hungry middle in the same way as those "Bach's Greatest Hits" collections and the awful faux-llies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Milos Forman's bawdy, jittery adaptation of Peter Shaffer's fanciful play "Amadeus" is not so much about Mozart as it is about genius and its burden on the mediocre. Mozart (Tom Hulce) is an adolescent boor touched by the hand of God; Emperor Joseph's (Jeffrey Jones) court composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) becomes obsessed and desperately jealous of Mozart's gift, leading him to the madhouse and confessions of murder. Amadeus works because of Forman's gift for the seedy (and portraying asylums--he directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, after all) and because of Abraham's deeply-felt performance.
Though it never really elevates itself beyond its theatrical limitations, its cleverness as an adaptation is almost unparalleled in the annals of stage-to-cinema translation. Restored now to a three-hour "director's cut," Amadeus unfortunately suffers from its additions, reminding of the Coen Brothers' ill-conceived recut of Blood Simple in that regard: Extended opera sequences push the now R-rated film from deliriously-structured melodrama towards Topsy-Turvy, while a scene detailing the humiliation of Mozart's wife Stanze (Elizabeth Berridge) at the hands of Salieri feels unnecessary and mistimed.
Unlike Coppola/Murch's Apocalypse Now Redux, Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: Director's Cut hasn't benefited from a remixing and complete re-editing. Rather, the additions feel choppy and obviously inserted, giving the film a lack of fluidity fatal to our rapturous suspension of disbelief. A line spoken by Tom Hulce's Mozart encapsulates the greatest irony of this version of Amadeus: "I don't rewrite what's perfect." This is not to say that the Amadeus that won eight Academy Awards in 1984 was perfect, merely that the urge to revisit old successes in an attempt to "improve" upon them is a risky venture at best. Here's hoping Ridley Scott's long-awaited final final cut of Blade Runner falls on the side of Touch of Evil and not of Star Wars: The Special Edition; maybe he should get Walter Murch on the horn.
by Bill Chambers As good as Warner's DVD of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: Director's Cut is, it's a wasted opportunity that the two-disc set doesn't utilize seamless branching technology to make simultaneously available the original theatrical version, which is already on DVD but in a decidedly inferior presentation interrupted by a side-break. Both renditions of Amadeus have their strengths, and it would be a shame for the one that received the Oscar for Best Picture to disappear into the ether.
Letterboxed at approximately 2.30:1 (a compromise between its 70mm and 35mm aspect ratios?) and enhanced for 16x9 displays, the three-hour Director's Cut features shallow contrast that, along with some softness to the image, seems intrinsic to cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek's lighting schemes and anamorphic lenses circa the mid-Eighties, respectively. One can at least say that the film has never looked this good on home video. I was a bit less enthralled by the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, representative not of a remix per se because Amadeus played select cities in six-track sound during its 1984 theatrical release. The music never quite takes flight--its concert hall ambience is unconvincing at best; the lone sequence to tax your system is the climax of "Don Giovanni" (pictured above). (Aside: Footage exclusive to the Director's Cut is indicated with an asterisk in the chapter menu.) The track itself has been recorded loud.
Milos Forman and screenwriter Shaffer have laid down a fresh yakker for the Director's Cut that drifts from screen-specificity on more than one occasion. Talking to each other as if no one else is listening, the two reminisce about the political strife in Forman's native Czechoslovakia at the time of the shoot, the probably-apocryphal origin of the "too many notes" scene (Forman proudly boasts that it was immortalized in Microsoft's Cinemania program), the challenge of adapting Shaffer's play, and much, much more. It's a long track but far from a drag.
A list of awards won by Amadeus plus cast and crew filmographies round out Disc A while Disc B hosts Bill Jersey's compelling, hour-long The Making of "Amadeus" (in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen), a documentary that finds almost everybody involved in the production contributing his or her two cents. Shock of shocks, F. Murray Abraham comes off as arrogant, Elizabeth Berridge ditzy, and a beefed-up Tom Hulce a quick study--there was little casting against type, in other words. It's also interesting to see the 'Michael Jackson' incident in which a performer's feather cap caught fire live and in person after hearing Forman and Shaffer discuss it in their commentary. The film's theatrical trailer from 1984 caps off the second platter. Originally published: September 24, 2002.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers I found Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: Director's Cut (hereafter Amadeus) a bit noisy when I caught it on HDNet not too long ago, but I guess that was a by-product of limited bandwidth. This disc's allegedly 2.40:1 transfer of the film--I can't yet screencap Blu-ray to verify--actually errs on the opposite end of the spectrum, seeing as it's conspicuously free of grain; truth be told, video-wise, it doesn't offer a tremendous improvement on the DVD of 2002. Thing about Amadeus is that it's lit in a manner that was out of vogue by the '70s, which has the probably-intended effect of making the ornate, colour-splashed/white-dominated interiors that constitute the picture's mise-en-scène look edible, like an elaborate wedding cake (though it's worth noting that most of director Milos Forman's films since have taken this same high-key approach to lighting). High-definition or no, then, Amadeus is bound to seem lacking in depth. But this 1080p rendering flattens the image even further through the gratuitous use of DVNR (which evidently necessitates a measure of no-less-irksome edge-enhancement to compensate), and if it's never applied as severely as it is on some of the recent James Bond titles, as with them there is a tendency for black to drop off steeply, thus heightening the synthetic appearance of the presentation. Still, colours and--in spite of any digital muckety-muck--textures pop like never before. I certainly wouldn't voluntarily spin the DVD again, what with its DD 5.1 audio sounding distorted, overly localized, and ineffably bland compared to the BD's 5.1 Dolby TrueHD option. Rare for orchestral performances, the opera sequences (especially "Don Giovanni") plumb the depths of the subwoofer here, while the rest of the mix, however ultimately dialogue-driven, is newly authoritative.
Returning are all the non-text-based extras from the Two-Disc SE, and I should add that I previously understated my affection for "The Making of Amadeus" (480i, 16x9): intending only to confirm its tech specs and running time for this review, I wound up watching it again in its entirety. The throughline of the piece is a ceaselessly fascinating account of the shooting conditions in Prague, with the production marking a bittersweet homecoming for the once-exiled Czech Forman. And speaking of bittersweet, there's the late, great Vincent Schiavelli, receiving more screentime than he does in Amadeus proper and getting the most anecdotal mileage any actor ever got out of a single day of shooting. The contents (a booklet elegantly recreating the press kit, plus a bonus CD compilation of Mozart tunes featuring detailed liner notes) and layout of Warner's book-style packaging for this particular release incidentally mimic the coveted Pioneer Special Edition LaserDisc of the film, but beware that the included digital copy of Amadeus is not affixed to the case and will likely fall to the ground the moment you peel off the shrink-wrap. For what it's worth, as much as I enjoy ogling a topless Elizabeth Berridge, it's a shame that the Director's Cut of Amadeus has apparently not just eclipsed but indeed supplanted the theatrical version, à la John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic, Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans, and, most recently, David Fincher's Zodiac. Originally published: February 9, 2009.