While many consider the late great director Ken Russell to be excessive, a better definition would be “passionate.” When he believes in something, when he feels he has the pure artistic take on a subject, his fevered desire comes pouring forth. In such films as Women in Love, The Devils, and The Who’s Tommy, he manages to expertly balance his often insane flights of fancy with real, meaningful emotion. In other instances – Litszomania, for example – it’s all smoke and manic mirrors. Sitting somewhere in the middle is the mesmerizing, slightly underwhelming look at the life of Nutcracker composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers. When it comes to his sonic significance, Russell redefines the creative biopic. When it comes to the man, well…
Based on a book which complied many of the Russian icon’s own letters, South Bank Show presenter Melvyn Bragg’s script centers on the crucial relationship between Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his nymphomaniac wife Antonina Miliukova (Glenda Jackson). Told in an unusual manner featuring fantasy sequences, nightmares, and flashbacks, Russell weaves the man’s lack of personal satisfaction – he is viewed as a latent homosexual in love with the flamboyant Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable) – and professional pitfalls. While he has a rich patron, Nadezhda von Meck (Izabella Telezynska), he is jeered by the head of the conservatory where he teaches. Plagued by disturbing visions of the past and the complicated life he currently leads, Tchaikovsky seems doomed to die broken and betrayed.
From the wordless opening which features our hero and his handsome lover frolicking through a randy Russian winter tableau to the amazing follow-up musical sequence where various members of the audience use his latest composition as a means of mental ‘escape,’ Russell announces an intention to use feeling instead of fact to get his various points across. Take a moment early on when a frustrated Tchaikovsky hears a familiar sound during a noisy holiday party. As he follows the voice, we are soon swept back to the man’s troubled childhood, where his mother is tortured during a bout with cholera. Without announcing the particulars, Russell uses his visual acuity to create a sense of what is going on. Later, when voice over narration provides some clarity, we see how effective the more subtle approach actually was.
Similarly, by using Tchaikovsky’s famed pieces as the basis for more personal reflection and introspection, we gain even keener insights. Similar in style to the music video of the ’80s but far less obvious, Russell interprets the various responses one could have to something like the “1812 Overture” or “Romeo and Juliet”. While always linked to some facet of the famous man’s life, we still see the kind of outsized ideas – read: passion – that would burn as Russell’s reputation for years to come. Though not as outlandish as some, we still feel the undeniable pull of religion, social stigma, tradition, and history. While he would try to tie the modern to the notable with many of this movies, The Music Lovers stays solidly in its era.
As for the acting, Richard Chamberlain makes for an unusual (and knowing) Tchaikovsky. He was himself a closeted homosexual at the time – he would be outed in the late ’80s – and those moments where he is trying to measure lust for real life have a real poignancy to them. Similarly, when shown struggling through various writing jags and personal problems, he has a definitive air. But there is no denying that Chamberlain is a slight star. Alan Bates was originally offered the role, and one wonders what The Music Lovers would play like had he accepted. Instead, because of a certain Dr. Kildaire status, there is a TV quality feel to the actor’s work.
As for Ms. Jackson, she continues on a considered ’70s career path as the decade’s premiere English “it” girl. There is no much to Antonina except her mental and physical proclivities, and even as she writhes around in pretend perversion, it’s hard to separate the smarts from the seductress. Jackson always comes across as much more clever than the material she is presented, and The Music Lovers tends to follow this formula. Her acting is first rate, but the character is ill-defined. Since Russell is trying to get away with using sensation instead of specifics to add detail, said shallowness really announces itself. We need more between Tchaikovsky and Antonina. We get very little to satisfy.
Still, because of his bravura abilities behind the lens, The Music Lovers ultimately achieves its arc aims. Russell is an true visionary at times and when he meshes the sounds of symphonies with his various visual cues, he achieves a kind of critical nirvana. It may not make a lot of sense within the standard storytelling dynamic, but it comes across as sly and in sync with his overall goals. Unlike other attempts at bringing the celebrated to the screen, Russell shows a slight amount of restraint here. Clearly, he believes the compositions will have more impact without so much frivolity. In the end, it may not be the clearest expression of his aesthetic insanity, but The Music Lovers is undeniably Russell. It’s also quite good, in spite of itself.