Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Amadeus

Usually, it's the sign of unfunny comic desperation for a movie to include a fart joke, but Amadeus, the 1984 winner of eight Academy Awards (including best picture, actor, director, and adapted screenplay), manages to transform its moment of flatulence into one of its most dramatic and iconic scenes.

The imp-like Mozart (Tom Hulce) entertains revelers at a masquerade with his effortless impersonations of other famous composers on the harpsichord. One guest says to play Salieri, the Italian composer in the court of Austria's Emperor Joseph. Calling that a challenge, Mozart cruelly mocks his contemporary's music and personality, punctuating the performance with a blast of gas, not realizing the man who suggested Salieri is none other than Sallieri himself (F. Murray Abraham in an Oscar-winning role). Oh, how the rage and humiliation burns beneath the mask.

Directed by Czech emigre Milos Forman (who had directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and would later direct Man on the Moon), Amadeus is the story of Salieri's jealously that he, a devout man of faith whose sole ambition in life was to compose music to God, must witness the natural, effortless genius coming from Mozart, a vulgar, childish creature of women and drink. Salieri might be the court composer, but he recognizes the mediocrity of his own work and how sublime Mozart's is. It is, as Salieri, almost as Mozart "takes diction from God."That God would chose this odious man-child for His instrument enrages Salieri, and he takes steps to silence this divine instrument.

Amadeus balances a number of different tones masterfully. There are elements of tragedy to both Salieri - a man cursed to know how bad he is at the art he devoted his life to - and Mozart - the gifted genius doomed to die young and impoverished. Salieri is stodgy, humorless and eventually blasphemous, but one can't help but feel sorry for him because he was forever denied what he wanted. But he definitely the villain the piece, using his position in the emperor's court to stymie Mozart's career and eventually plot his death. Meanwhile, Mozart is reminiscent of so many modern-day rock stars whose excesses and indulgences destroy them. He's either composing brilliant music or getting sucked into an endless debauchery of drinking and partying until his body can take no more.

Yet, Amadeus is often quite funny. Mozart is a giggling child in a man's body, and Hulce is hilariously over-the-top (in an Oscar-nominated performance). His antics among the stuckup elite of Vienna are outrageous and carefree. Everywhere he goes, he's the center of attention, and I guarantee, anyone who sees the movie will spend weeks afterward mimicking his distinctive, high-pitch giggle. Salieri, in particular, is made the fool, so while it's possible to feel bad for him, it's just as easy to laugh at his misfortune.

The film is also an effective period piece with stunning recreations of both life in Vienna at the time (late 18th century) and Mozart's operas. Everything looks and feels right, but it should be noted the film takes liberties with historical facts. Salieri, if he were alive today, could probably sue for character assassination (the fact his work is still performed today invalidates any claims he was a hack composer).

Amadeus is a brilliant exploration of an artist and his work. This not a tedious biopic; it has an energy and life of its own. Mozart's music is used fantastically to elevate the drama and passions at play. Even if you're not a fan of Classical Music when you sit down to watch the film, you will feel lifted and moved by Mozart's talent, still evident 200+ years later.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

There have been plenty of jokes about certain celebrities famous for being famous, but Anvil, a Canadian heavy metal band, might be the only entity famous for not being famous. Credited with helping to pioneer thrash metal with an intense sound and incredible live show, the band seemed on the verge of hitting it big and becoming rock legends, but that never happened. They faded into obscurity until recently. Ever since Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) came out, they've undergone something of a rebirth. They've performed on Conan O'Brien, appeared in The Green Hornet, opened for AC/DC and Saxon, and headlined their own successful tour.

In this documentary by Sacha Gervasi (a former teenage roadie for the band and screenwriter for the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal), we follow the band members, notably guitarist/vocalist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (couldn't make that up), as they embark on a disastrous tour in Europe plagued by one calamity after another, hold down day jobs (Lips worked for a school caterer and Robb was in demolition at the time the movie was made), spend time with their families, struggle to record their 13th album, and try to hold on to their rock n roll dreams.

For a band credited with influencing the likes of Slayer, Metallica, and Anthrax, Anvil found absolutely no commercial success in their heyday. There are a number of likely reasons: poor management, bad business deals, being from Canada (not known for its heavy metal market), and dumb luck. Motorhead front man Lemmy Kilmister says they were just never in the right place at the right time. Shortly after Anvil released its landmark Metal on Metal, it was eclipsed in ferocity by the aforementioned bands and the thrash underground in general. Metal fans likely don't think it's metal for a guitarist to play solos with a dildo, as Lips was want to do. At the same time, mainstream metal success eluded them as Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and other hair bands topped the chart.

The comparisons between the real-life Anvil and the fictional Spinal Tap are apparent to anyone familiar with either: eccentric, goofy rockers living in their own world, playing in front of tiny crowds as one thing after another goes wrong. There's even an amp that goes to 11

But I kept being reminded of someone else: Ed Wood. I'm not saying Lips is as bad a musician as the Plan 9 From Outer Space director was a filmmaker, but for anyone familiar with the Tim Burton-directed biopic Ed Wood, they would recognize a similar enthusiasm and joy for their craft. Wood never seemed to realize he made bad movies; he just seemed happy to be able to make them. Similarly, Lips, despite never achieving stardom, seems just joyful to be able to play and write music, regardless of how well it's received. With every setback, he finds the positive spin and the drive to keep moving forward.

Lips and Robb go a long way to endearing the movie. The movie would be painfully funny if it was fiction and unbearably depressing if they weren't such good friends and bright spirits. They've been rocking together since they were teenagers, and in their 50s, they still are. Yes, there are fights, arguments, and moments of despair, but clearly, they enjoy the fact they get to do what they loves.

The movie doesn't shy away from the impact on their families. Their spouses are saintly in their patience and support, and Lips's sister gives them a hefty loan to complete their new album. Whether you become a star or not, rock n roll has a price.

This is about a heavy metal band, but I would say it appeals to non-fans. Sure they can get your head banging, but Lips and Robb can also make you laugh, cry, and cheer.