If there's one thing In Search of Mozart proves, it's that the image of the 18th century composer is very different in classical music circles than in the popular imagination. The latter is formed in large part by the multiple Oscar-winning biopic Amadeus (1984), Milos Forman's lavish yet earthy adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play. Amadeus views Mozart through the jealous eyes of a less talented rival, and what he sees is a savant and buffoon whose social ineptitude and desperate need for financial security diminishes his obvious talent.
Writer and director Phil Grabsky barely acknowledges Amadeus in his lengthy biographical documentary here, only mentioning it in passing as an interviewee derides historical inaccuracies (without specifying them) while allowing that the film did demonstrate Mozart's well-honed skills as a performer. This decision is a missed opportunity for Grabsky, whose film is for music lovers, but not necessarily moviegoers. It's informative but perfunctory, the kind of thorough and rote recitation best appreciated by the already converted.
Grabsky covers a lot of ground in his search for Mozart, literally and figuratively. He goes wherever Mozart went, and mixes images of paintings and engravings with shots of contemporary European cities that sometimes contradict his narration. Mozart's hometown of Salzburg, Austria, is described as the "piss-pot of Europe" for its near-constant rain and grimy exterior, but now appears well-scrubbed, sunny and cosmopolitan. Whenever Grabsky wants to illustrate the peripatetic nature of Mozart's life, he uses footage shot from speeding car windows, making the young Wolfgang seem like a member of the Grateful Dead, perpetually on tour.
Where Grabsky excels is in the examination of Mozart's brief, fiery life through his prodigious output. Interviews with conductors and opera directors, historians and musicians trace the footsteps of this child prodigy as he matured into the creator of music that remains widely performed 250 years later. Mixing familiar and lesser-known pieces, Grabsky lets the music continually reinforce his interviewees' boundless enthusiasm. He also uses dramatic readings of Mozart family letters to get a more intimate point of view.
In Search of Mozart is an apt title because the only thing everyone interviewed agrees upon is his genius. Worldly yet provincial, derivative yet original, instinctive yet accomplished, this reprobate workhorse, bawdy dandy, elite entrepreneur, ennobled servant and connoisseur populist retains his essential mystery. Perhaps that's why Mozart's music, so infused with joy and sadness, remains with us still.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 10; 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 11-12; and 4 p.m. Sunday, April 13. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.