Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)


Okay, we’re fresh off the big conclusion to cinema’s first Auteur Trilogy (that I’m aware of), a true and near-perfect comedy classic was about to happen… must mean it’s time for something dour and slower-paced. Maybe something three hours long with a downer ending.

Fine. Let’s do it. Rock me, Amadeus.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Could I have written this to the tune of Rock Me Amadeus by Falco? Probably. In time. But honestly the upbeat Euro-rap song and this dour, overlong revenge tragedy would be a weird fit, just weird.

Not a musician biopic, as I thought it was when I saw it as a kid while we were learning about famous composers in school. No, Amadeus (based on the play which I also saw) takes the real life composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and imagines a homicidal feud on Salieri’s part. (History is pretty sure Mozart wasn’t poisoned and also disputes the idea that Mozart and Salieri were rivals.)

Full disclosure: I watched the Director’s Cut, which is 20 minutes longer and turns Salieri into a monster way too early, neither of which do this movie any favours.

Okay, so. Points in its favour… it’s a lavish production, and I can see how it racked up Oscars for sound, art direction, makeup, and costumes. Lead performances from Hulce, Abraham, and Jeffrey Jones as the Austrian emperor were all impressive. Jones sells the emperor’s attempts to be the smartest person in the room while also letting slip how he never was. Abraham oozes underplayed menace as Salieri. But if I’d been handing out the Oscar, I’d have gone with Hulce over Abraham, as his frenetic take on Mozart was engaging and ultimately tragic in a way Salieri wasn’t.

My issue is this. That Mozart died young and short on money is sad enough. Any attempt to tell his story is going to run afoul of those classic artist tragedies, “died young” and “underappreciated in his time.” Which is bad enough.

It doesn’t need a villain.

Salieri had an entirely different tragic fate… Mozart died young, without ever knowing his full impact on the world; Salieri lived long enough to see his music fall out of favour. No longer played, scarcely remembered, possibly trying to take credit for Mozart’s death to steal one last piece of glory. Like Billy the Kid said in Young Guns 2, “You’ll never be me, you’ll only be the man who killed me.” That’s sad in its own way, but Amadeus felt the need to say “Bitch you had it coming” and make it Salieri’s only comeuppance for the story’s fictional crimes.

Salieri is painted as a devout man, who believes music is his connection to God, and thus devotes himself body, mind, and soul to a chaste (but never poor) life of composing. And then he meets Mozart, a crude, giggling, filthy-minded man who outshines Salieri completely and totally as a composer. Angered that after years of self-denial and worship on his part, God instead gave the gift of music to the hedonistic Mozart, Salieri sets out to destroy his rival… and we spend two and a half hours watching it happen. He undermines Mozart’s reputation, blocks him from employment, works to torpedo his operas, then schemes to make him write a requiem, kill him, and steal the requiem, and it’s a lot, it’s just a lot.

The opera scenes are very well done, solid acting, gorgeous scenery, but by the end of hour two I really wanted out of this death march. I’ll give it this, at least the playwright knew that watching Mozart’s decline would be rough enough, and spared us Mozart having four children who died in infancy.

Honestly, given my determination to irrationally anthropomorphize an awards ceremony voted on by a swarm of different people, I could see the 80s Oscars as Salieri, angrily eyeing the hedonism and success of blockbuster cinema, as brash and as crude and as ultimately far more influential as Mozart.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Number 39!? Maybe they’re judging off the shorter version, I dunno, maybe some critics like being oppressively bummed out for hours. It would explain the reviews for Manchester by the Sea.

So this lush, cultural revenge tragedy, determined to be bleak where blockbusters are light, serious where blockbusters are trivial, this is a big sign of where the Oscars were trying to go as commercial blockbusters got bigger and bolder and less concerned with being awards darlings. On that note, our top grosser asked one key question…

If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?

The Box Office Champ

Son of a bitch.

$5.5 million, a difference of $5.5 million between me and covering my all-time favourite movie. You let me down, 1984. Fine. Well, there was something strange in the neighbourhood of Beverly Hills, and who did they call?

It’s Eddie Murphy, everybody. Fresh off almost single-handedly bringing Saturday Night Live back from the brink, now the biggest star in the world, or at least headlining the year’s biggest hit. At 23 years old. That is, you have to admit, what they call a meteoric rise. And Eddie Murphy had his own production company by this point: “Eddie Murphy Productions” was credited alongside Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and if I need to tell you the influence Jerry MFn Bruckheimer had over action film for the next three decades and change, maybe Google it, because it would take a 40 minute Patrick Willems video just to sum it up.

Quick summary: Detroit police detective Axel Foley’s ex-con best friend is killed, which leads Axel to Beverly Hills to find his killer, probably high society art dealer Victor Maitland. While the local police don’t initially care for Axel, they eventually side with him, starting with Detective Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold).

Judge Reinhold Tangent Incoming

Judge Reinhold, readers. He was a solid support character in several 80s and 90s movies. He was a key character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but for whatever reason didn’t take off like Sean Penn or Forest Whitaker. Although he also didn’t have to get naked as often as Phoebe Cates, let alone Jennifer Jason Leigh, so that’s something.

Anyway, the point is, Judge Reinhold was good, it’s sad he’s not in more things, attention should be paid.

Judge Reinhold Tangent Over

Now there are two things that are generally understood about 1980s Eddie Murphy: he was a huge comic talent, and his material has not aged well. For instance Delirious and Raw were hugely popular and influential comedy specials that were nonetheless homophobic, because you could just do that in the 80s. I mean 80s America ignored the AIDS epidemic because of homophobia, they weren’t going to yell at Eddie Murphy over it.

So with that in mind… how does Beverly Hills Cop hold up?

The answer is… pretty well. There are two heavily queer-coded characters, played by Bronson Pinchot and Damon Wayans (Sr., obviously, there was only one Damon Wayans at that point), and there are no homophobic jokes lobbed at them. Yes, their characters are pretty stereotypical, but they are not mocked nor derided for being so. Pinchot is even allowed to be funnier than Eddie Murphy in his first scene, and not all comedians allowed to influence their own star vehicle would make themselves the straight man for a scene.

There are two things that have aged poorly, though. First is Murphy’s Axel Foley, after being punched by Beverly Hills police sergeant John Taggart, saying “Where I’m from cops don’t file charges against other cops.” In 2021, that’s a rough thing to hear in general, let alone from a black cop. And second, he mocks another black cop for sounding too white. I’m not the guy to speak to the problems surrounding arguments over people being insufficiently black, but they defintely exist. Look at the scene in recent release One Night in Miami where football player/actor Jim Brown talks to Malcolm X about how in the absence of white people, light-skinned and dark-skinned black people turn on each other. Then google some actual black people discussing these issues, like “good hair/bad hair,” or accept my statement that “It’s a problem.”

Past that? Axel Foley’s ability to fast-talk his way out of multiple situations is definitely a little charming. Murphy plays it well, as he does his attempts to bond with Taggart and his green, timid partner, the aforementioned Detective Rosewood.

There are a few classic 80s/90s cop show tropes on display here. Axel Foley is the cop who flaunts the rules but (eventually) gets results, despite a disapproving black CO who just got off the phone with the mayor (actually the complaint from the mayor took a minute to trickle down to Axel but still). He gets to take personal vengeance on the guy who killed his best friend, but said bad guy does not fall a long way onto something pointy, so they don’t hit every trope.

Overall it’s a fun watch, which aged better than Murphy’s The Golden Child, which I rewatched shortly earlier for unrelated reasons. “Fun watch that only aged poorly on two lines” isn’t something you can say about Amadeus, to be sure.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Still high, but our lowest ranked 80s blockbuster so far with 83% from critics, 82% from audiences.

What Links Them? Both movies involve someone in high society committing crimes and using his position to manipulate the wheels of society against his enemy. One’s just better at getting away with it, mostly by not letting his enemy know they’re enemies.

What’s The Mashup? In Vienna Hills Cop, Antonio Salieri is convinced he’s committed the perfect crime, ruining and poisoning his rival, Mozart. But when Mozart’s fast-talking police detective friend from America comes to town asking questions, even Salieri’s influence with the emperor might not be able to keep him safe from retribution.

Admit it, you’d watch this just to hear Axel F performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Wait… one second… yes, of course that already exists, don’t know why I’d think it didn’t, and it slaps.

Other Events in Film

  • GHOSTBUSTERS. GHOSTBUSTERS HAPPENED IN 1984. It came in second at the year’s box office but beat out Tootsie to be the highest-grossing comedy of all time. And it’s brilliant, okay maybe Venkman’s a little problematic and wow the EPA are the bad guys somehow but it remains great. Huh. Maybe I didn’t need a full write up for this one, I summed it up pretty good just there. Anyway it made it to number two but got edged out by Eddie Murphy, who had once been considered for the role of Winston Zeddemore. (Ghostbusters got a re-release in 1985 that pushed it over Beverly Hills Cop but re-releases don’t count here.)
  • Coming in just under $50 million short of Ghostbusters was another 80s icon, as Spielberg did a prequel with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Flashing back a few years shows us a young Indy more interested in fortune and glory than preserving cultural artefacts, and the incident that perhaps changed his worldview. Also he has an Asian child he keeps as a personal assistant? I am literally begging Indiana Jones 5 to follow up on that, I have so many questions.
  • With a little help from Steven Spielberg, director Joe Dante and writer Chris Columbus make a horror film even kids can watch (unless they still believe in Santa) with Gremlins.
  • The two-punch combo of Temple of Doom and Gremlins both getting controversial PG ratings (not the most questionable 1984 films to do so) leads to the creation of PG-13.
  • James Cameron debuts The Terminator, which doesn’t crack the top ten for the year, but this was his small budget, art-house period in comparison to what was coming in the 90s and 00s.
  • Karate Kid’s abuse of the training montage tricks Generation X into thinking learning stuff is easy.
  • Police Academy debuts. The franchise has its flaws, but it didn’t spawn six sequels, a TV show, and a cartoon show because the first movie wasn’t funny.
  • Kevin Bacon cuts loose, Footloose.
  • Leonard Nimoy decides maybe he doesn’t want to leave his most famous role after all and gets resurrected in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
  • Romancing the Stone, with Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito, has been on my “I should rewatch that” list for a minute. It made stars of all three leads, plus boosted the career of Robert Zemeckis, who we’ll be talking about very soon.
  • One year sees the release of the breakdancing movie Breakin’ and its infamous sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. I guess when you’re trying to cash in on a fad you move fast or you die.
  • David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune is a critical and commercial disappointment, as Dune is a son of a bitch to try to adapt. At time of writing, Wikipedia has this to say: “It underwhelms both critically and commercially, despite being positively rad as hell.” So far that edit has gone unchallenged.
  • Rob Reiner popularizes the mockumentary genre with This is Spinal Tap.
  • Warner Bros. tries to take Tarzan deadly seriously with Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. It manages to outgross the previous Tarzan, the Ape Man movie, which was sold exclusively on “Bo Derek gets hell of naked in this,” but not by as much as Warner would have liked.
  • Did any subtitle turn out quite as false as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter? It’s not even the halfway point.
  • Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker take on spy movies with Top Secret!
  • The Last Starfighter and The Neverending Story opened a week apart from each other? While Ghostbusters and Gremlins were still in theatres? Damn, young nerds were well fed that summer.
  • Also in 1984: a fantasy/horror film about fighting a killer that can enter people’s dreams… Dreamscape with Dennis Quaid, Christopher Plummer, and Max von Sydow.
  • “Killer in your dreams” went a little better for Wes Craven, who debuted knife-gloved dream-monster Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street later that year.
  • Producer Paul Aratow had this to say about Sheena, a female-led Tarzan-esque jungle adventure movie he’d spent years trying to get into production: “I have a daughter, who is 6, who needs someone to look up to. And I want Sheena to be that superhero. I also want Sheena to be a character that parents will want to send their kids to see, and the type of picture that parents can go see with their children.” Which, yes, is a noble ambition, but at what point of the process, Paul, did you decide “Also we should get Sheena very naked at least twice?” And how did you manage to still get a PG (not even PG-13) rating? (Look y’all probably know about the blockbusters so we’re gonna have to talk obscure bombs a little.)
  • Sheena’s failure did female superhero movies no favours, and nor did Helen Slater as Supergirl. Took 30 years for someone to give Supergirl another go in live action, and it turned out much better.

Next Page: Sweeping, slow placed romance and 1.21 gigawatts

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