What is the responsibility of a biopic? Is it to inform or to entertain? To slander or to praise? There are hundreds of questions that arise when adapting a real story involving real people into a feature film. Some question whether or not the act itself is morally acceptable, especially if the figures are deceased and have no say in the production of the film. Many movies, varying in quality, find themselves in the midst of controversy based on their handling of the subject matter. Movies like Argo, Pocahontas, and Braveheart, among many others, have all found themselves under fire for erroneous portrayals of real life events. One such movie that is always criticized for lack of truth is 1984’s smash hit Amadeus.
Amadeus is an earth shattering biopic from legendary Czech director Milos Forman about the infamous rivalry between composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film tracks the two men from the beginnings of their careers to both of their inevitable downfalls. The film was a financial success and a critical smash hit, raking in 8 Oscars at the 1985 Academy Awards. Despite mountains of critical acclaim, Amadeus is almost always criticized for its distorted interpretation of the truth. While it’s fair to call Amadeus misleading, it would be a crime to label this as a fault. Amadeus’ twisting of facts is what makes it such a bold and exciting biopic opposed to the bland biopics that stick to the formula.
The true story of Mozart is an interesting history lesson about how a strange and immature mind created some of the most important pieces of music ever composed. The true story of Salieri is a story about a mildly successful composer that offers a compelling look into Mozart’s contemporaries. Studying the true relationship between the two men would be a good history lesson on music in Mozart’s Vienna. If you’re looking for interesting facts, read up on the two, but if you want a compelling and rich examination of art and ego, watch Amadeus. The genius behind Amadeus is the rewriting of the two composers and their relationship. Mozart and Salieri aren’t the men they really were, rather, they’re catalysts for what Peter Shaffer wanted to say about art.
Why this transformation works in lieu of an honest representation is Mozart’s reputation. Mozart is more myth than man at this point, a mad genius whose true identity and psyche are a mystery to never be revealed. To attempt to document his life would be a waste of time, and frankly, not very entertaining. Hence why Shaffer and Forman don’t dissect who Mozart was, rather what Mozart is. Elusive, crass and genius, a person who has become immortal through his art. Amadeus is all about art and music. The character of Mozart isn’t an exaggeration or caricature, he is who he represents in the present. Salieri is Mozart’s perfect foil, and vice versa. Even though, in reality, Salieri was moderately successful and had no bad blood with Mozart, he represents the opposite of what Mozart is. He was forgotten, his music, while not terrible by any means, pales in comparison to the beautiful and timeless works of Mozart. So Amadeus does away with how the two actually interact, and instead pits the two legacies against each other. One, a legacy of fame and fleeting glory, the other, a legacy of fading memory and mortality.
Amadeus is about more than music. Mediocrity, genius, madness, jealousy, there’s a million ideas swirling from a barely true to life story. In my opinion, Amadeus is the pinnacle of what a biopic should be. It’s not about being truthful or adapting a crazy story into a film without changing anything at all. A biopic is not to inform, it’s to enrich. If you want to learn about Mozart, watch a documentary, if you want a deep exploration into what Mozart represents to so many, watch Amadeus. Being too caught up in the nitty gritty details detracts from the artistic potential a biopic can hold. By focusing on being more impressionistic rather than realistic, we the audience not only explore the time and history, we see a brand new perspective on events from the past. The beauty of film is its ability to create and transform, and when a film focuses on being 100% accurate, it loses that beauty. Amadeus is what happens when filmmakers fulfill their artistic vision to perfection, surpassing reality and challenging what fiction could ever accomplish.