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Ken Russell has been treated pretty rudely in the last few years, but back in the 1970s he ruled the roost for fantastic, flamboyant, notorious art filmmaking. Only now do spy film aficionados admit that his energetic Billion Dollar Brain (1967) is a worthy capper for the Michael Caine-Harry Palmer trilogy. Russell's critical success Women in Love still impresses as a moody, dramatically potent D.H. Lawrence adaptation. But the director used his name value to extend his earlier TV documentaries about artists and composers into lavish film versions. Russell's bizarre fictionalized biographies gave free rein to his personal style: total visual pyrotechnics. 1
With 1970s The Music Lovers Russell launches into a pre- music video ode to the tumultuous life of Peter (Pyotr) Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer. Not being an expert on the subject -- or even of the composer's wildly romantic, accessible music -- I won't go into various objections that The Music Lovers scrambles the historical timeline and tweaks characters to suit its purposes. Tchaikovsky's wife Nina, for instance, is portrayed as a quasi-prostitute before their marriage, when she was reportedly one of his composition students. The film's basis is a book of correspondence between Tchaikovsky and his main patron Nadedja von Meck, who he never met. Although the movie reduces Tchaikovsky to a fairly simple equation involving genius, patronage, and tragic sexuality, at its basis it isn't any deeper than, say, an MGM or Warners musical biography from the '30s or '40s. The important thing to remember is that using a viewing of The Music Lovers to write a school report on Pyotr is asking for trouble.
Ken Russell's major cinematic formula appears to be" visual wham times aural bam = emotional ecstasy". He also loves to plunge his audience into previously unexplored sexual territory. Moscow music conservatory teacher Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain, the actor that a million teenage girls considered the most beautiful man on TV back in Doctor Kildare) is carrying on a forbidden homosexual romp with his equally handsome friend Count Anton (Christopher Gable of Women in Love and The Boy Friend) while composing exceptionally good work (a concerto, I believe). Supervisor Nikolas Rubenstein (Max Adrian) disapproves of Peter's illicit personal life and determines to wreck his career. Peter breaks with Anton and spends a summer with his relatives in the country, where he is drawn into a platonic-affectionate "closeness" with his sister Sasha (Sabina Maydelle). Rubenstein's patron Madame Nadedja von Meck (Izabella Telezynska) finds herself enraptured at one of Peter's music recitals. She underwrites Tchaikovsky's "maintenance" with a house and a lavish allowance, enabling him to compose full time. Nadedja never meets Peter in person, but their correspondence grows increasingly passionate. Then the experienced, impassioned and adventurous young woman Nina Milyukova (Glenda Jackson) writes Peter a perfectly timed mash note full of romantic promise. Against the advice of his relatives (and the jealous Anton) Peter meets and quickly marries Nina. On his honeymoon he is horrified to discover that he cannot change his essential sexuality at will. Unable to consummate the marriage, he is soon revulsed by Nina's body, no matter what approach she takes. Nina's grasping lowlife of a mother (Nina Pryor) moves in and things get even worse. It all ends in abandonment, madness, suicide, and musical immortality.
Ken Russell's attempt to revive the musical biography was undertaken with the best film resources in England at his side, and backed by UA's money: Douglas Slocombe's cinematography is up to the challenge of filming Russell's often alarming graphic images. With all the Rated "R" nudity and crudity afloat, plenty of viewers would say that the movie digs a grave for the screen musical bio (No, Song of Norway did that). Enormously creative and unapologetically unsubtle, Russell's imagery at least lives up to the music that it honors. It would be easy to follow the lead of older movies about composer-conductors, and simply show enraptured faces every time a Tchaikovsky "greatest hit" crashes to life. Russell doesn't coast in his musical scenes, but uses them to illustrate the equally rhapsodic emotions flowing between his oversexed, over-stimulated characters. 2
Russell uses several mechanical cinematic devices familiar from old musical biographies. A single musical number covering a famous concerto will "jump location" as it proceeds, beginning as a piano rehearsal before melding into a final performance. Along the way the images we see will express Peter's inspiration for the music and the rapturous reactions of those who hear it; by the end of the number the composition is being exalted by the music-loving public. Inspiration leaps into Peter's mind and from there directly to the orchestra, a process almost as automatic as in MGM's The Great Waltz. In that movie Johann Strauss has only to take a ride in the woods, and the natural sounds of birds, wagon wheels and horse hooves compose the music for him. Then again, these geniuses had to get their inspiration from somewhere. Russell's Peter exists in a perpetual musical orgasm.
Everybody in this Russia of the 1870s and '80s has a rapturous inner life, and the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg (Play Dirty, Isadora) makes sure that every obsessed psyche adds up to an even number. Peter is haunted by the childhood horror of his mother being cured/killed of Cholera by doctors prescribing a horrible folk procedure; he wills the same fate upon himself seemingly out of love for her memory. Anton begins as a jealous lover and ends as a vindictive one; he turns informer. Nina's mother and Peter's brother-manager Modeste (Kenneth Colley of The Devils and The Empire Strikes Back) line their pockets through Peter's success. Nina's horrible fate takes the prize for disproportionate punishments meted out to basically innocent women. Before the frustrated and confused celebrity spouse is sent to one of the movies' most horrible insane asylums, she's pimped out by her mother to various name composers. The low point of The Music Lovers occurs when, accompanied by a few bars of The Polovtsian Dances, Alexander Borodin shows up at Nina's bed, doffing his suspenders.
As Ma would say, that's no way to treat a lady. Just the same, Russell's female characters are consistently more interesting than his male artistic geniuses. It's always impressive when an actress as forceful as Glenda Jackson is giving a show all she's got.
It's true that when Russell's image machine gets rolling, some really tacky set pieces leap forward, about a decade too early for MTV. It's 1980 but everything spins and gyrates. Nina imagines Peter besting her rotten Lieutenant lover in a duel. Telephoto lenses catch the wealthy revelers toasting and dancing in moving coaches. A bad-news visit to a country estate just happens to take place as large bonfires are burning, enabling Russell to shoot Peter's anguish through flame and ashes. The "1812 Overture" is cut to Peter conducting can-can girls and images of most of the players' heads being blown off by cannon fire. On their fiasco of a honeymoon, Nina and Peter watch as a camera obscura image catches a pair of tangled lovers in the park. It's a primitive movie machine, and it's already giving a soft-core sex show.
Not every movie has to be subtle. This one begins by using little dialogue but gets more verbose as it proceeds. Peter tells Nina, "You're a good woman", but doesn't catch her telegraphed reaction that seems to say, "The hell I am." Nobody ever comes out and calls Peter's sexuality by its name, which is probably appropriate for the time period. Just the same, it's pretty silly when Peter wails that, "There's so much you don't know about me. But I can change to a normal life." It doesn't work. Nina strips off (truly daring of Ms. Jackson) but Peter reacts as if she's made of Kryptonite.
The Music Lovers is one of Russell's best movies, even with its limitations. Add a pair of horns to his curly hair and eye makeup and Richard Chamberlain would become a really attractive satyr. Glenda Jackson projects more intensity than two movies could properly contain. There will always be viewers to challenge this picture's sense of history, or to decry some of its choices on the grounds of good taste. I don't agree with the liberties the movie takes with famous people, but I think it makes its mark through sheer energy and visual excess.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of The Music Lovers looks just fine; the transfer appears to be a few years old but is more than adequate. Color is excellent and the film element used clean and clear. The actual on-screen title appears to be Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and the Music Lovers. 3 At least half an hour of this movie, edited together and projected on a wall, would be an ideal light show for a rock concert.
A rather stuffy original trailer is included. The lame text blurb from MGM describes Chamberlain and Jackson as "ill-matched lovers in this divine bio-pic". Women in Love engaged in a frank debate about sexual equality (not to mention erotic figs) and emerged as a challenging, rather hot date movie. The Music Lovers will probably impress the average female date as a mildly misogynistic experience. Russell surely threw a lot of moviegoers for a loop: "Look dear, let's go to this movie we missed by the fellow who directed that lovely show The Boy Friend. It's called The Devils."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Music Lovers rates:
1. Of course, we can't omit his side trips into nostalgia kitsch (the frankly adorable-cute musical The Boy Friend), and its flip-side opposite The Devils. A vomit bag politico anti-church horror tome so notorious that its studio seemingly wants to forget that it exists. I've only seen cut up, scratched to hell copies.
2. After film school I met a female student who was living with a working film editor. She talked incessantly about her desire to film Quadrophenia by The Who. She apparently had worked up her own massive mental music video to go with the music. That's as deep as a lot of lost film students got into filmmaking (I was lost in a different direction). No matter what Super-8 images you put up against, for example, a Jim Morrison song, what you've got is a bunch of pictures tacked onto somebody else's work of art. Say what you will about Ken Russell, but that's doesn't describe his M.O.. Well, unless you're talking about his sell-out musical Tommy.
3. The rumors are wrong, dead wrong: this movie was never called Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and the Music Lovers and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.
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T'was Ever Thus.