'Amadeus Live' And What It's Like To Watch A Movie With Live Music

It always seemed like a bad idea to me. Live music with a movie? Wouldn't that be distracting? As screenings with live music became more and more popular, I continually avoided them out of a stubborn belief that they would just be a terrible idea. There was no real logic in this line of thought; it merely existed somewhere in the mess that is my mind.

And then I saw an advertisement for Amadeus Live with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here was a chance to see one of my all-time favorite films, one of the best films ever made, Miloš Forman's Amadeus, a film that's filled with wall-to-wall music, with a live orchestra. It was finally time to give the movies with live music trend a try.

Music I'd Never Heard

Live music with films is, of course, nothing new. From the dawn of cinema, when films were silent, live music almost always accompanied screenings. It began with a guitarist, moved on to an orchestra, eventually settled on organists. According to more than one source, by the time silent movies had reached their heights, they were the single largest source of employment for musicians in America.

Then the dawn of sound changed all that. You no longer needed live music when you could overlay the music into the film itself. You no longer needed someone tinkling away at a piano, and that's the way it stayed for decades. In recent years, however, the combination of a classic (or sometimes not-so-classic) film and live music has grown more and more popular.

There are several companies now devoted to bringing films with live musical accompaniment to audiences, including Film Concerts LiveSoundtracks LiveMovies in Concert, and more. For these presentations, the film's score is performed with a full orchestra, complete with conductor. The conductor and orchestra work with screens that play the film with visual cues embedded within – think of something along the lines of the colored bars that guide players of games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. The conductor will also use an audio click track via an earpiece, which will couples with a visual display of the beat and number of the musical bar on the screen.

Meticulous planning and rehearsal goes into all of this, to the point where the conductor may have watched the film in question upwards of 20 times before the performance. Still, I remained skeptical. I couldn't get past the idea that the live music would be a distraction; would somehow take away from the power of the visuals. How would I even be able to hear the movie if a live orchestra was drowning it all out?

Yet when the opportunity presented itself to see Miloš Forman's 1984 masterpiece Amadeus with a live orchestra, I was intrigued. Here was a film where music was practically a supporting character. A film where the music was integral to the story itself. The idea of a live orchestra playing the divine music of Mozart while Forman's film played seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally give this a shot.

Forman's film, adapted from Peter Shaffer's stage play, tells the fictionalized story of the seething jealousy of composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Salieri has devoted his life to music, a pursuit he considers to be divine and holy. Music is a conduit to God, and all Salieri has ever wanted to do was to create music to please God above. Yet for all his talents, Salieri is a rank amateur when compared to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). As played by Hulce, Mozart is a vulgar, giggling imp of a man; rude, condescending, smug, and completely content in his own musical abilities. The very sound of Mozart's music fills Salieri with both ecstasy and rage – he recognizes that it is Mozart, not he, who truly possesses a divine gift. Salieri can not comprehend why god would bestow such musical brilliance on such a vulgar creature as Mozart.

Amadeus is the best film Forman ever made. A lush, funny, devastating film that marries sight and sound perfectly, reveling in the majesty of Mozart's music while conveying Salieri's simmering rage and hatred. In ornate concert halls and shadow rooms lit by flickering candles, Forman is able to transport his audiences wholly back to 18th century Vienna, with help from cinematographer Miroslav Ond?í?ek's naturally-lit imagery.

Underlying it all is the music. "This was a music I'd never heard," Salieri says at one point, reflecting on a Mozart composition. "Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."

"Pieces like 'Don Giovanni' or the 'Requiem' or the piano concertos are not that easy and you need to hear them many times to appreciate how majestic they are," Forman said of the music in the film. "[T]here are melodies buried in the orchestration that any other composer would use as a main theme...I don't who it was who said you can teach a lot of things – orchestration, counterpoint, even rhythm, but the one thing you can't teach is melody. That comes from God or your genes, or whatever you believe."

Amadeus Live Philadelphia

The Voice of God

It was the task of the Philadelphia Orchestra, under conductor Richard Kaufman, to bring that godly music out of the screen and into the real world. Within the lofty heights of Verizon Hall within the Kimmel Center, the orchestra gathered on a stage beneath a screen and for the next three plus hours, presented Forman's film in a way I had never experienced. From the opening overture onward, the score was brought to wondrous life, not just via the orchestra but also a choir that sang the choruses of the various Mozart operas on display in the film.

One negative worth noting: those looking for the best quality film projection are unlikely to find at it one of these screenings. Light used by the orchestra to see what they're doing inadvertently floods upwards and has a tendency to wash-out the lower part of the screen. It can be distracting at first, but I eventually grew used to it. Subtitles are helpfully provided in case you miss any dialogue drowned-out by the score, but these too can occasionally be distracting, and on several occasions, they spoiled punchlines to some genuinely funny bits of dialogue.

Forman's film is remarkable for its ability to not just marry Mozart's music to unforgettable imagery, but also in how it makes us hear the music through Salieri's envious ears. By isolating certain instruments at certain moments, we are able to hear the brilliance that Salieri hears, and also grow contemptuous of the fact that we ourselves could never create such beauty.

"On the page it looked nothing," Salieri says at one point while reading Mozart's sheet music. "The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox..." At this point in the film, we begin to hear the music Salieri is hearing in his head. It's a scene that takes on startling new lie when presented with a live orchestra. Because now we're not just hearing it, we're seeing it. We're seeing the musicians on stage take up their instruments and breath life into them. "

"And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe," Salieri says, and on cue, on stage, the oboist begins to play. It's a transcendent moment, one of unimaginable power, underscored by Salieri's next line: "A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight!"

The audience drank all of this up as if consuming the finest, rarest of wines. I go to a lot of movie screenings, and more often than not, they are filled with the rudest, most inconsiderate audience members you can imagine, completely oblivious to anyone around them. Here, however, in this classic music setting, things were different. The audience sat rapt, as if hypnotized by the combination of music and imagery. They guffawed at the amusing moments – and there are many; Amadeus is a funny film – and were shocked by the startling scenes. At one point, disgusted with his inability to compare to Mozart, Salieri tosses his crucifix into his roaring fireplace. The audience collectively gasped at this, as if this rather tame moment were the most shocking thing they had ever seen. It was an absolutely delight, to sit back and witness not just the film and the orchestra but also the audience's spellbound reaction to it all.

Would this method of delivering film and score work universally? I still have my doubts. The prime recipient of this presentation seems to be John Williams, with frequent live concerts of E.T. and Indiana Jones films making use of his iconic film scores. As wondrous and memorable as Williams' soundtracks may be, the music itself isn't so intertwined with the stories. Yes, Jaws wouldn't be nearly as effective without Williams' simple yet powerful theme, yet I continue to have my doubts that watching a presentation using that score live would be anything but distracting.

Yet with Amadeus, it works, and it works beautifully. To see a group of talented musicians on stage, beneath the rolling film, bringing forth that heavenly music creates a more immersive experience than any headache-inducing 3D can accomplish. The film's lengthy runtime, complete with intermission, breezed by, to the point that as it came to a close I was truly saddened it had to end. Soon, when the credits had stopped rolling, I'd be dumped back out into the cold, unmusical world waiting beyond the lobby doors.

For those few hours, though, I was transported and transfixed. I remain uncertain if any other film and orchestra accompaniment could replicate this experience in all its remarkable and engrossing glory. When asked at one point if he thinks Mozart's music is good, Salieri replies, "It is miraculous." Miraculous is as good a word as any to sum up such an filmgoing experience as this.