In Search of Mozart
Directed by Phil Grabsky
Relax. Leonard Nimoy has nothing to do with this very European documentary created in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth back in 1756.
The Young Wolfgang Mozart Chronicles
There are some striking things about how director Phil Grabsky (Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World) unfolds his cinematic biography of Mozart. For one, he never falls back on the tried-and-true historical reenactments that are a staple of almost every History Channel program.
Instead, Grabsky simply uses classic, painted family portraits and narration with text oftentimes supplied by family letters. Also, Grabsky travels to many of the locations Mozart found himself in (Salzburg, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Vienna to name several) and thereby the movie makes an interesting connection between the modern-day world and the one in which Mozart roamed.
All that travel set the stage for the development of quite a unique character. Mozart's father paid out of pocket for their expenses and typically received mere trinkets and hugs in return instead of the monetary rewards he had been hoping for.
At least Mozart got to meet his peers and travel, which expanded his horizons tremendously in the days before planes, trains, and automobiles. It instilled in Mozart's music a unique sense of worldliness. To some degree, it could be said Mozart was the first metrosexual.
The Artist Known As Amadeus
It doesn't hurt that this documentary also doubles as a Mozart primer. Snippets from more than 80 compositions in the Mozart canon, including his first piece written at the tender age of five, are performed onscreen by some of the world's best and brightest talent.
Through the use of his music and his letters, In Search of Mozart engenders a new appreciation for Mozart the man.
Attention is paid to the details that made Mozart so remarkable. For example, his five-year old bones shouldn't have been physically capable of playing the keyboard so robustly. Such abilities, one historian notes, typically don't appear until around the age of 10. Nonetheless, young Mozart was writing and composing with "wonderful ease" at the age of seven and a year later he was writing like a 60-year-old Haydn.
As Mozart's story is told, it's great to see Mozart experts debunk much of what transpires in the Oscar-winning Amadeus. In this documentary, Salieri is once again banished into obscurity.
Granted, Milos Forman's movie is a great piece of entertainment, but In Search of Mozart is able to put Mozart's "potty mouth" in a more informed context. Yes, family letters reveal a coarse sense of humor regarding bodily functions. It's exhibited in letters from Dad, Mom, and Wolfgang alike as the boy grew up.
But Mozart outgrew the topic and he turned out to be perfectly normal in terms of psychological attributes.
The Goal Is Elevation
Sure, even Mozart's own father described him as "a bit of a scamp." But Mozart's life wasn't all obnoxious laughter and fart jokes. The death of his mother, conflict with his father, romantic heartbreak, and, yes, love for Constanze all inform his music and operas.
Perhaps as another side effect of his early travels and exposure to so many ideas and cultures, Mozart was always scribbling notes and had a surprisingly mature outlook on life. His frame of mind? Always prepare for the worst, but hope for the best and continue to write.
Even so, he was indeed "a remarkable firecracker," as one historian puts it. He carried a certain amount of arrogance that bristled when those he entertained regarded him as merely a servant. That's a natural attitude for one who was raised by parents who kept telling him how great he was; after all, by the time he "came of age" at 18 he had already written 28 symphonies.
In such circumstances of class differences, he had a hard time being silent and he made his share of enemies. But he would also go on to push the envelope of his day through his operas, musical dramas that exposed the human weaknesses to which everybody could — and still can — relate.
In Search of Mozart is a well-rounded look at the man that manages to steer clear of pure idolatry while also giving the man's talents their due. Watch the musicians play, listen to the historians, and, somewhat magically, this portrait of Mozart does indeed come to life in an enlightening fashion.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.