Amadeus Live

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.”

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