What a ravishing, punch-drunk movie this is. It glories in music and its fleeting visual and emotional associations, and it wallows in the precious despondencies of the soul—which may be the famous “Russian soul” but at any rate feels bracingly contemporary over 30 years later (or 130, as the case may be). It’s got neurosis, nymphomania, repressed homosexuality, outright madness, and the most dangerous condition of all—celebrity—all rendered dizzying by the most powerful drug of all—music.
From one point of view, this movie’s closeted hero, referred to as Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain, ahem), had an enviably charmed life as a talented man given the freedom and space to create masterpieces (which he did) by an understanding fairy godmother, a Countess who carried on a correspondence with him and offered the use of a “summer cottage” big enough to billet a platoon. From another point of view, it was one damn thing after another, including a spectacular wreck of a marriage to the crazy nympho who fails to “cure” him—enter Glenda Jackson, the parallax of her gaze capable of cutting glass.
Ken Russell’s films have often been accused of extravagance (as though that’s a bad thing) in the sense of leaving “realism” and sense behind, but Melvyn Bragg’s screenplay follows the biographical program of the composer’s life pretty closely, at least if the Encyclopedia Britannica is any confirmation. Some things get left out, of course, but all the juicy stuff here seems as true as possible. The movie is fast, funny, always visual, always musical, always melodramatic in the literal sense. Finally available letterboxed as part of MGM Limited Editions’ on-demand service, it’s ready to be inhaled or injected.