Greatest of the High Brow: Beethoven vs Mozart

This could be the greatest high brow movie battle of all time, pitting Roger Ebert’s favorite movie against the most decorated movie of the 80s. Amadeus was released in 1984 to critical praise and is the fictional biography of Mozart, the famous composer, and his story shares a lot in common with Ebert’s favorite movie, Immortal Beloved. Immortal Beloved is about Beethoven’s life and is also told from the perspective of another person, who is trying to determine the secret identity of the Immortal Beloved in Beethoven’s life. In the same way, Salieri tells us how he met Mozart and plotted his demise in Amadeus. Both movies are the same, at least in structure. But Amadeus is hailed as a masterpiece, while Immortal Beloved languishes in mediocrity. Why?

The beauty of Mozart and Beethoven’s music means very little about either man’s life (and habits). This much is clear in both movies. It’s mainly the point, at least as far as Amadeus goes. Mozart is a lifelong brat, an alcoholic, and a penniless jerk, portrayed marvelously by Tom Hulce, who takes our preconceived notions and dashes them with only a giggle. That “Mozart giggle” dispels any assumptions about the man and shapes him into something else, the man director Milos Forman wants him to be. But make no mistake, it’s a fictional movie. Salieri didn’t plot his downfall, for one, but Amadeus won eleven Oscars anyway, and it’s still praised today as a classic. Beethoven also has a high brow reputation but maybe it’s not as strong or as classy due to the tone of his “romantic” music, because anybody with an ear can tell his music is emotional. Still, Immortal Beloved is a (mostly) fictional story about Beethoven’s life, and contains hotly debated details about just who Beethoven’s secret love really is, and I think it’s intriguing to watch. Gary Oldman’s performance sells the story, but he never received any awards for his performance. The movie never achieved the success of Amadeus and only brought in a moderate amount of money at the box office.

Since both are fictional in their own right, it still surprises me to this day how both movies are perceived. What are their differences? Immortal Beloved has “some” rough elements that Amadeus doesn’t have, but that’s really nitpicking if you ask me. One such nitpick is the soundtrack. Beloved plays really loud, while Amadeus at times rests or has more delightful music. Ok, how about the plot? Does Amadeus have more energy? Or better performances? Gary Oldman’s performance is good but maybe not as good as that time he played Dracula, and the rest of cast is average, even Isabella Rosalini, but they’re still decent. The Amadeus cast is hailed by just about everybody on the planet as all-star, with F. Murray Abraham winning the Oscar for his performance as Salieri. Even Tom Hulce was nominated, despite being way, way over-the-top as a giggling idiot. No one on Immortal Beloved is even mentioned in the same class. The real reason for such differences is the historical context, which makes no sense.

Amadeus was originally a London production based on the Russian play Mozart and Salieri, written by Alexander Pushkin. The rumors of the Salieri and Mozart rivalry didn’t start there, but Pushkin popularized this rumor, and it was picked up by the London production and so on into the movie. Perhaps even worse, Amadeus tries to argue that Mozart’s productions of Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro were flops, when they were both hits. The one thing they get right though is Mozart’s characterization, and that maybe supersedes any dabblings with the history. Immortal Beloved doesn’t get the same curtesy, and it must be that not many critics understand Beethoven, or Gary Oldman may not be as good as we think it is. Either notion is really depressing in my opinion.

Overall, both these movies are good but their reception is still a mystery to me. Roger Ebert gave Amadeus a glowing review way back in 1984, and he did the same for Immortal Beloved ten years later in 1994. If you remember Siskel and Ebert’s movie review show, you can see their positive review of Immortal Beloved when they were on TV in 1994. The public is not on the same page with these guys. I think director Bernard Rose is maybe most at blame for the reception of Immortal Beloved, due to his story choices, but his artistic direction is beyond question. I think the scene of Beethoven floating in the lake watching the stars while Ode to Joy plays, is one of the best artsy fartsy scenes in any bio-pic I’ve seen to date, and Amadeus really has no scene like that in comparison. It does have strong character scenes and an even stronger story, maybe not one entirely based in history, but one based in enough history.