DVD Night: Amadeus vs. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Posted on January 25, 2005 by

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Everything happens for a reason. Everything that comes our way is won, right? Teach em up and kids get right after that intimacy with god or perfection of wisdom chasing like it’s the fucking milk truck and no one wants to end up with gold teeth. Eventually the wake grows so wide only image left in their mind is longing, for its path to find. How are you supposed to know searching for the purpose, searching out the design, just puts you further yearning for the goal, truth?

Root out perfection and there ye shall find god. In “Amadeus” Mozart swivels his baton like a superconductor channeling the Rex Fantastic. Nevermind that Wolfie himself is a giggling ninny besotted by his own desperation for a father’s favor; he sits at his billiard table composing dipping into the inkwell like it’s a reservoir of divine cues. Antonio Salieri would kill to soak up the holy precision, but only fills with narcotic craze that his lifelong study can’t make him a vessel transmitting heavenly melodies. The angels he hears are all blown off course, their wings caught by the storm of progress. But who’s flawless? Mozart’s dad masks himself like he’s ready to preside at an orgy, and scares the opera prodigy’s eyes tight shut. Wolfgang’s middle name is barely uttered in the script but “Amadeus” is Latin for god’s lover.

Music to Salieri is god in mathematical resonance, the lord whose billiard balls bounce just so, just as he determined to strike them. Mozart does not bring the fugal counterpoints that Bach does, but his harmonies sound with a precise beauty that confounds Salieri nonetheless. The Italian hungers and hunts and his empty hands are to the movie like silences that draw tension between notes. Mozart’s real scores are the recitative matching the conflict’s slow rhythm haunt for haunt. The soundtrack of course is brilliant. Breathless Salieri identifies: “And there an oboe, high and unwavering, until a clarinet takes over and forms a phrase of such … longing.”

But this plaintive superscribing woodwind sounds like—that sounds like jazz! The soaring clarinet of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” runs along high like telephone wires, transmitting escape, branching all over the land. If the Christian God is a clockmaker the jazz god is a blacksmith. Not just for forging new sounds from European instruments and West Indian rhythms, but because his work is never done. He doesn’t wind up his pieces and send them on their way; he stands by the furnace: hammers and mends, shatters and bends. Jazz is variation and invention. Instead of perfect, jazz is exquisite—which means “well chosen.” “Sweetback” is a chase movie and, like Salieri, the cops just can’t find what they seek.

“You can’t get away on wings. But niggers got feet.” Sweetback runs all day and night, wiggling his own magic wand and attracting LAPD like a lightning rod, but all he channeling is Redd Foxx. The black man doesn’t have a father to worry about and he doesn’t look back. When he’s with a woman, she’s the one feeling full with god’s word. Progress in “Sweetback” is an excuse for the police, a murmur from angels. Sweetback gets on by getting off course. Deviation defeats progress. Flawless can’t beat lawless. Haunted and hounded, chased by sirens, Sweetback makes his own path and his own high notes. With the squealing horns and clarinets, he breaks out. He moves with his feet instead of his hands clutching after something. Sweetback’s route is not designed. It hasn’t time for perfection. It’s pounded out and left for detectives to find, puzzle over and pursue.

Links in this post:

Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera
William Paley’s “Natural Theology”
Redd Foxx on YouTube


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