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DVD Review: Amadeus

By Glenn Abel

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Elvis art Milos Forman says he asks for only two things out of cinematography: "The black is really black ... and then the human flesh is human flesh. Because if you have these two elements, everything else is beautiful."

Viewers of the gorgeous new video transfer of "Amadeus" will find that the director's theory holds. The blacks are, indeed, keyboard ebony, and the flesh tones appear true to life. Everything else is, well, beautiful.

Warner Home Video has released the highly anticipated "Amadeus: Director's Cut" in a two-DVD set, with the extras filling the second disc (retail $26.99). Director Forman and playwright-screenwriter Peter Shaffer provide commentary throughout the three-hour feature, bickering and reminiscing like an old married couple. While the commentary is recycled from the 1995 Pioneer laserdisc, Forman discusses the newly added footage in a few seamless audio inserts. A new "Making of 'Amadeus' " documentary reunites the filmmakers and actors.

The DVD offers two audio tracks: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0. Unlike most discs, the audio selection is made on the main menu, perhaps in anticipation that some listeners will switch to the 2.0 for musical scenes. The 5.1 sounds great with the music, however, with none of the distracting artificial separation listeners may fear. The airy mix heightens the illusion of sitting in Mozart's theater. DTS is not offered.

The letterboxing seems perfect -- not at all tight but still artistic (2.35:1). The transfer "from restored elements" shows few signs of age -- an occasional speck, not much more. If not a reference disc, the new "Amadeus" surely will test the quality of any home-theater setup.

"Amadeus" won eight Academy Awards in 1984, sweeping the top categories and waltzing to the best picture honor. Forman, Shaffer and producer Saul Zaentz ("The English Patient") hauled home hardware. The best actor victory of F. Murray Abraham was perhaps the most dramatic, given the tale of his casting.

Forman says Abraham first read for a minor role. He then agreed to help with another actor's casting session by reading lines for the Antonio Salieri character (Mozart's nemesis).

"I realized he is Salieri," Forman recalls. Abraham was playing "little bits in films here and there; mostly onstage for little money," the director explains. "And he has in himself this kind of controlled bitterness, which is perfect for Salieri." When Forman asked the actor to read again, he refused, exhibiting an attitude the director found perfect.

Tom Hulce, best known for his work as a dip in "Animal House," beat out a swarm of actors for the coveted Mozart role, including, apparently, Mick Jagger, who repeatedly pops up on the casting sheet. Elizabeth Berridge replaced Meg Tilly in the role of Mozart's wife when Tilly was injured playing soccer with some street kids. Forman says Berridge was "unjustly, harshly criticized" for her work, simply because critics knew she was a sub. Hulce and Berridge appear in the making-of featurette, both looking remarkably changed.

The real star of the film, the director and writer insist, is Mozart's music. Famed conductor Neville Marriner took the job as music supervisor only after being assured that not a note of Mozart would be changed. He did, ironically, find the need to spice up a snippet of Salieri's opera.

The movie was filmed in Prague, which was more Mozart's Vienna than modern Vienna could ever be, the filmmakers say. "Basically, you removed the electric lights and you were in the 18th century," actor Vincent Schiavelli says. Adds Forman: "You could turn the camera 360 degrees and see nothing modern." Everyone shoots 18th century films there now, he says.

Shooting in Prague was wonderful but surreal, the filmmakers say. Czechoslovakia was then a Soviet Bloc country. Secret police were everywhere, following the Americans, bugging their hotel rooms and spreading rumors that they were making a sex film. Burly crew members brawled with Cubans attending a local terrorist training camp.

The production employed the Tyl Theater, where Mozart debuted "Don Giovanni" in 1787. Hulce stood in the exact spot where the master worked his operatic magic. Performing in the beautifully preserved theater gave everyone in the cast "a lot of humility and respect," Forman says. Firefighters, meanwhile, were standing by as the production designer lit thousands of candles in the old wooden theater, a tinderbox.

The DVD set includes a dramatic trailer and credits for key cast and filmmakers. The scene-access feature does not allow selection of musical numbers, unfortunately. Scenes with added footage are noted, but you cannot directly access the new material.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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