If everything you know about Mozart was gleaned from Peter Shaffer’s glorious Broadway confection Amadeus (or, more likely, from Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning 1984 version), then this film will come as a bit of a bummer. Instead of that famous fictionalized portrait of an inspired, shambling, borderline lunatic with a silly wife and a sillier nickname, this sober, meticulous, and overlong documentary presents a portrait of a genius about whom reverence and accolades revolve like satellites around a shiny sun. I know that as an historian I should not be saying this, but I really enjoyed my illusions about “Wolfie” and his wacky artistic gong-show of a life. And now they’re pretty well gone.
Relayed through a combination of nuts and bolts documentary techniques – interviews with scholars and admirers, location footage – and costume drama, In Search of Mozart is a definitive vision of the life and legacy of perhaps the greatest composer of them all. The problem is, it’s a bit of a poorly-made slog. Directed by Phil Grabsky (whose companion-piece In Search of Beethoven was released earlier this year to tepid acclaim), and narrated by (a possibly sleepy) Juliet Stevenson, the film follows a linear, forceps-to-stone trajectory. This chronological approach (often criticised as dated in our era dominated by more thematic structural approaches) allows us to experience Mozart’s musical progress from his first compositions through to his final works. There is, I’m happy to say, something quite thrilling about beginning at the “beginning” every once in a while.
It is clear that the central idea behind the doc was to undress the considerable mythology that surrounds Mozart (including, of course, the material from the apparently hated Shaffer play/Forman film), and on that score it is undeniably successful. This is a film much more interested (as perhaps we should be) in the music that flowed out of this strange man than anything else. Academics, composers, directors, and conductors take turns detailing intricate webs of tonal texture and harmonic reflectivity that the casual listener would most likely miss. These are often invaluable glimpses into Mozart’s fevered musical brain; however, they begin to lose their capacity to impress as this litany of awesomeness continues, uninterrupted, for over two hours.
There simply must be detractors from his genius, or at least, those who would take him down a peg here and there? The (if you’ll forgive an awful pun) one-note treatment of this musical whiz kid is, finally, exhausting. Where is the controversial debate over Piano Concerto #20? Isn’t there someone who wants to trash talk about the Turkish March?
Some of the commentators are more animated than others – Jonathan Miller, a theatre director, is a real card – and some are simply smart but flat. This is a problem for documentarians everywhere, but I found myself especially aware of it during this film. Perhaps this had something to do with the absurdly close framing of each talking head. The camera felt like it was on top of the speakers, pushy and invasive, an aesthetic issue that I shared with others who had seen the film, and all agreed that it caused them to feel fidgety.
One friend literally turned off the film after 15 minutes, explaining that she had been interested in the material but put off completely by the shoddy filmmaking. (“OK, OK! I’ll just read a book about him!”) My reaction was less decisive, but it would be impossible to recommend a film which makes such wide use of such an awful, intrusive, and distracting bit of poor film craft. As fascinating as the subject may be, there is no getting past the sparkle of spittle on the larger-than-they-should-be lips of an Austrian musicologist, or the unwelcome nose hair of a Bavarian conductor. Yuck.