Design by Grace Filbin

On the Second Day of Docu-cember, my true love gave to me

2. Biopics

And a Genre New for Me.

This December, I thought it apt to make my own mini-Advent calendar for every movie lover out there, this time built around something I love: The documentary. To make it interesting for you, I’ll set this filmographic list to a tune, and not just any tune, but perhaps the most famous holiday melody of them all. I have prepared twelve documentaries, all of which are more than worthy of watching. Starting today, a new part of this set will be released every other day, culminating with the final part releasing on Christmas Eve.

Day Two: Biopics

What list of documentaries would be complete without the biopic? Oftentimes less “docu” and more entertainment, these are the films that emerge as large-scale dramatic vehicles that score big at the box office. And how could they not? What do we, as an audience, find half as interesting as the self and its encapsulation — the scooping up and bottling of life into a two-hour experience, weaving together the highs and lows, almosts and maybes of real life into a thematically sound, satisfying story. While based on other people, these stories shine a light on us, the viewers. They can reflect our own majesty like “Senna” (Asif Kapadia, 2010) or “First Man” (Damien Chazelle, 2017). They can chronicle those larger than life like “Lawrence of Arabia” (David Lean, 1962) or “McQueen” (Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, 2018). They can display our fixation on art like “Mishima, A Life in Four Chapters” (Paul Schrader, 1985) or “Frida” (Julie Taymor, 2002). They can even show our nasty side like “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, 2011) or “The Social Network” (David Fincher, 2010).

Accomplishing all of this and more is Miloš Forman’s factually dubious yet endlessly entertaining “Amadeus” (1984). Hilarious and heartbreaking, “Amadeus” follows the explosive life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce, “Animal House”), cradle to grave, from the eyes of his nemesis Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). In most period pieces, the characters’ lives are so strange and other-worldly to us that they fade into the background with the ornate scenery that surrounds them — not so with “Amadeus.”

The “Amadeus” characters are richer than Capezzoli di Venere. We watch jealousy consume Salieri’s life, haunting him with every step he takes. In turn, we watch Salieri haunt Mozart, clinging with white knuckles to the young prodigy, refusing to let his name be shaken from history books. The man of the movie, Amadeus himself, is a mere child gifted with the talent of Apollo. He has no idea how to be mature, manage his money, be a real husband, cope or be frank. He has no idea how to live his own life, making his manipulation at the hands of Salieri even more pitiable. This is a man he trusts to lead him forward, though his only goal is to lead him further down a self-destructive rabbit hole. As an acting duo, Abraham and Hulce take the script they are given and amplify it to a dynamic that’s downright Shakespearean. Abraham’s performance as Salieri ranks among the best of his career, as he embraces Salieri’s turn from a merely jealous man to the avatar of envy. Hulce, in the role of bumbling yet masterful Mozart, can garner love, disgust, admiration and pity all in a single scene.

And my god, I haven’t even mentioned the music! While it’s expected that a movie about Mozart would have an incredible soundtrack, the nature of “Amadeus” necessitates more than just a good score. Unlike in other films, the music is not simply a background element — Mozart’s music gushes forth and overpowers everything else. Dialogue is quieted, environmental sound is shushed and the music full-fist grips us, just as it does Mozart and Salieri. We are overwhelmed by sound and the emotion it brings. There is no half-listening to pieces from “The Marriage of Figaro,” only embracing it with full attention and open eyes, listening to a melody that Salieri can’t accept was written by human hands.

As with our last film, there’s an issue of truth here: It’s possible (and even likely) the whole of Salieri’s rivalry was manufactured for the film. But with a masterpiece like this, does it matter? 

Daily Arts Writer Rami Mahdi can be reached at rhmahdi@umich.edu.