Amadeus is about the rivalry between the now-legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the now-forgotten Antonio Salieri. Salieri was the court composer for the emperor of Austria, a post that owed more to his love of music and pathological ambition than to his talents; Mozart was the one-time child prodigy who dashed off timeless masterpieces as easily as he did vulgar jokes. Sort of. The movie tries to play Mozart's genius a couple of different and actually somewhat contradictory ways.

On the one hand, it has to position Salieri's music as mediocre and Mozart's as instantly immortal. So we get a scene where Mozart overhears a Salieri piece, memorizes it on the spot and adds a few riffs that improve it a hundredfold, and we get a scene where the elderly Salieri plays one of his melodies for a dense priest and gets no reaction, then plays a line of Mozart and finds that the priest can hum the rest of the piece. Mozart's works don't require a slowly building critical consensus to be declared great — even the man on the street can tell that they're instantly canonical. This is Beatlemania genius, where critical plaudits and public hysteria come simultaneously, and immediately. The library at Deerfield has a poetry book from this period where the anthologists have taken Lennon/McCartney lyrics that were something on the order of weeks old at the time and stuck them between Shakespeare and Dickinson.

On the other hand, the filmmakers play up the irony that only Salieri, Mozart's bitterest rival, truly appreciated Mozart's genius. So we also get scenes of audiences yawning at Mozart's operas and applauding Salieri's. This is genius more along the lines of someone like Wallace Stevens, whom various professors of mine in college and grad school said was hailed as America's pre-eminent poet, who would not exactly top a list of most recognizable literary figures, and whom I personally have always found, with a few exceptions, quite inaccessible. It's so good that it's over the heads of us regular folk — the sort of thing that you might not quite believe until you become an aficionado of something and actually do find yourself treasuring an artist the dilettantes find too challenging.

So which type of genius was Mozart? There's a bit of a mixed message going on here. Though it does occur to me that Nirvana achieved a brief blast of saturation-level fame with its first major-label album yet was known as a somewhat inaccessible critical-darling band with its second, so it's certainly not an impossible trajectory. Nirvana is also a perfect example of one of the chief phenomena Amadeus offers for consideration: the way true genius pops from its surroundings, like a red four surrounded by blue threes. One of my favorite bands is Local H. On the surface, Local H is a bit of a Nirvana clone: the music has a very similar texture, from the song structures down to the grain of Scott Lucas's voice. The main difference is that Local H is more ambitious on an album level; its magnum opus to date, Here Comes the Zoo, presents ten songs, and then six minutes into the tenth song, it continues past its natural conclusion and gradually the previous songs are threaded through it, until over half the songs are playing at once, layered on top of one another, and it sounds great. The songs were designed to interlock. That's genius, I thought, when I realized what was happening. WAY more ambitious than anything Kurt Cobain ever tried. Local H, it occurred to me, might well be the better band.

Then a previously unreleased Nirvana song, "You Know You're Right," hit the airwaves. 34 seconds in, the song takes a left turn and there's a pair of lines — "never say a word again / I will crawl away for good" — and the six seconds of music while these lines are being delivered eclipse Local H's entire career. Local H is still excellent. But genius goes beyond excellence. It's another phenomenon entirely.

At which point you say, uh, dude, I've heard that song on the radio and it ain't all that. (You say this because you are "down with the street" as they say.) Which is sort of how I felt about the Mozart in Amadeus. Instrumental classical music, with a few exceptions — some of them Mozart, certainly — doesn't do much for me (cf. jazz), and I actively dislike opera. So I got the sense that I was "viewing against the grain" in such sections as that in which the emperor yawns at one of Mozart's operas while Salieri finds himself torn between pleasure at gaining an edge on his rival and indignation that the brilliance of the work is lost on these swine. Me, I was kinda with his majesty there.

Not at the movie, though. It may wear its subtext on the outside (I guess taking a cue from the musical sensation of the day, Madonna) but the themes of the film are really compelling and the whole thing is extremely watchable. One thing I did remark upon, though, was the heavy American accent sported by the leads. It wasn't just a matter of being used to the cinematic convention of American accents for Americans and British accents for all Europeans; the accents just sounded thick to me, regardless of context. Really hitting those Rs, digging deep into those diphthongs, and so forth. Conventional wisdom suggests that in addition to the more colorful dialects sported in such regions as the Deep South and New York City, the US had a sort of national standard accent, that of the Plains and Mid-Atlantic. That's what these characters were speaking. Why does it suddenly sound weird to me? I'm also the only one I know who picked up on just how very Californian the accents on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" were, how they called Dawn "Donnie," making absolutely no distinction between an "ah" and an "aw" sound, which is the quintessential giveaway that you hail from the Golden State. Gyah, has moving around so much messed with me to such an extent that no accent sounds natural anymore?

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