Phil Grabsky's meticulous and frequently monotonous documentary about the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart comes to vivid life whenever one of the many world-class musicians who sat for interviews simultaneously describes and demonstrates exactly what's so special about particular compositions.
Much of the film is, by necessity, extremely conventional. Grabsky and his crew visit Salzburg — including the Mozart family's first small apartment — and prowl the streets of Vienna, where he settled as an adult, as narrator Juliet Stevenson and an international array of historians describe the events of Mozart's life. Born in Salzburg (now in Austria, then an autonomous region) in 1756, Mozart's father was a musician who knew a prodigy when he saw one: Mozart was an accomplished pianist at age 5 and a fledgling composer at 6; by age 18 he had 28 symphonies to his credit. Mozart spent years touring the capitals of Europe with his family, playing for wealthy patrons (and acquiring a taste for the high life) while his father tried to secure him a lucrative, well-paid position. The teenage Mozart continued to travel with his mother while his father and sister remained at home. High-spirited and impetuous, he made enemies and friends with equal ease. He wrote lots of letters, some very rude, and returned home after his mother's 1778 death in Paris. After three unhappy years as a court organist in Salzburg, Mozart moved to Vienna. He married Constanze Weber, of whom his father disapproved, became court composer to Emperor Joseph II and lived above his means until his death in 1791.
Grabsky is clearly on a mission to set straight popular misconceptions fostered by the hugely entertaining AMADEUS (1984). Historians testify gravely that Mozart's toilet humor was a product of his youth and times — bodily functions, they assert, weren't the taboo they later became — and the film closes with the assertion that Mozart was not poisoned, "nor was he a pauper when he died" in 1791. It seems fair to point out that a more financially prudent genius would probably not have been buried in an unmarked grave, but why quibble? The film's soul is the musicians whose love for Mozart's compositions is as vibrant as their desire to share it — when music historian Imogen Cooper articulates, while playing the opening of the Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat, the bold and startling way the "cheeky" piano suddenly interrupts the orchestra, her delight is infectious. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh