Amadeus and Moneyball

I saw Moneyball when it was released last year, and have seen Amadeus many times. Leaving the theater after Moneyball, I thought how similarly both films take a few biographical facts and use them to create historical fiction. Both are based on a true story, on a real-life historical character — the operative term here being “based on.”

There’s no question that sabermetrics — the advanced methods of statistical analysis, touted in Moneyball, that Billy Beane was amongst the first to heavily emphasize in putting his teams together — revealed the hidden merits of undervalued (and thus bargain-priced) players to scouts and general managers. Careful analysis of the A’s 2002 season demonstrates that without the edge sabermetrics gave the team, they wouldn’t have made the postseason (see “How Important was Moneyball to the Success of the 2002 Oakland A’s?” on the Sports Illustrated website). But Beane was hardly the only general manager to take sabermetrics into consideration, and the real reason the A’s had so much success in ’02 — the elusive, coveted asset they possessed that so many other major league teams were unable to acquire, regardless of their high payrolls or innovative statistical formulas — was its starting pitching. It was Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder that won the ’02 A’s the AL West that year: assembling a pitching rotation that performed the way theirs did was a much more impressive achievement than signing a few batters with high on-base percentages.

In Amadeus, there’s similar overemphasis on and distortion of certain aspects of The Mozart Myth.

In the film Mozart composes all his music entirely in his head, then writes it down later when he gets around to it. It was sometimes true that he composed passages of music this way (especially when writing piano music, since like so many other pianist-composers he conceptualized music in terms of the piano). But in other cases, his process was more painstaking: he found the composition of string quartets particularly difficult, for example, his manuscripts revealing a slow process of trial and error, with correction after correction as he couldn’t quite get things right. Mozart wasn’t an idiot savant taking dictation from God; he was a disciplined craftsman who had refined and developed his abilities through decades of study and hard work.

The story that Salieri killed Mozart is demonstrably false. The rumor was started by Constanze Mozart (the composer’s widow), in her suspicious grief. Alexander Pushkin based his 1831 play Mozart and Salieri on the story, and then a century and a half later Milos Forman remade Pushkin’s play as his 1984 film Amadeus. But the historical record simply doesn’t bear out the idea of any jealousy or rivalry between the two musicians — and if there had been, in all likelihood Mozart would have envied Salieri, since Salieri was able to achieve financial stability through the important court positions and Church jobs that Mozart failed to secure during his Vienna years. (See A. Peter Brown’s article, Amadeus and Mozart: Setting the Record Straight.)

You can go on with other examples.

Franz Joseph the 2nd, the Holy Roman Emperor, is depicted as a vapid idiot when in fact he was a skilled and sensitive amateur musician. (A good movie needs antagonists, so to provide some, Amadeus gives us Salieri and Emperor Franz Joseph characters that have nothing at all in common with the actual historical figures who bore those names — just as the real-life Art Howe has nothing in common with his character in Moneyball. Click here to listen to an interview with Howe, in response to his depiction in the film.) The last year or two of Mozart’s life are depicted as the bottom of a downward spiral into poverty and despair, when in fact Mozart’s emotional and financial circumstances had significantly improved by 1790 and 1791.

And so on.

But for as much as Amadeus and Moneyball distort history to create effective drama, if you love classical music and you love baseball then you love both these films, because they pay their subjects the respect they’re due.  There’s enough comprehension of classical music and baseball, enough insight into what really goes in those fields, to allow them to provide unique contexts within which meaningful questions about the human experience are worked out. That’s why you can forgive these films their significant historical and biographical errors. Amadeus (together with The Red Violin) is my favorite film about classical music, and Moneyball (together with 61*) my favorite about baseball.

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2 Responses to Amadeus and Moneyball

  1. Brian Linnell Comment by Brian Linnell made on October 19, 2012 at 1:44 am

    Something to be aware of, especially for those who are attracted to Brad Pitt’s notion (as discussed in interviews he gave about the film) of Moneyball as a metaphor for defying “the Church” and its conventions: where the success of the ’02 A’s can be attributed to the iconoclastic sabermetirics schemes celebrated in the film, the success of the ’12 A’s (also under the leadership of Billy Beane) depended on the old-fashioned judgment of scouts and everything else the film dismissed as “medieval.” The ’12 A’s had the second-lowest on-base percentage in the major leagues, for example.

    Clint Eastwood plays a major league scout in the ’12 film Trouble with the Curve, which is an important movie to see if the Moneyball story interests you. Trouble with the Curve emphasizes the value of the intangibles, of the instincts and judgments professional scouts employ to discover potential talent. Ten years ago Beane built a contender by defying “the Church,” but to do it this season he relied on “the Church” entirely.

  2. Pingback: Piano Concertos by Mozart and Salieri from 1773 | A Year in Classical Music

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