The Music Lovers

Movie Information

The Asheville Film Society will screen The Music Lovers Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.
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Genre: Biographical Music Drama
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Gable, Izabella Telezynska
Rated: R

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I programmed The Music Lovers (1970) somewhat self-indulgently, since Sept. 20 is my birthday. Moreover, back in 1979, the bootleg 16mm print I bought happened to arrive on the same day, so this seemed right, while its sudden emergence on DVD (at least in the UK) sealed the deal. Now, having said all that, I’ll go on to note that this biopic on Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) has started to gain the position—especially after all those Russell tributes last year in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto—of being considered the filmmaker’s best film (including by Russell himself). I don’t quite agree, but I haven’t any real quibble with the choice. André Previn once called it “the greatest film ever made about a composer” and he may well have been right. It’s certainly one of the most daring and creative—and it’s one that is completely driven by the music from the first scene to the last. It’s a film that literally bursts onto the screen with a cymbal crash from “Dance of the Clowns” (The Nutcracker), and one that ends with somber tones of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony backing possibly the most shattering finale imaginable. The key to the film lies in its opening credit—“Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers.” This isn’t strictly a biopic on Tchaikovsky, but Ken Russell’s vision of the composer and those in his circle, the titular “Music Lovers.” Interestingly, nearly every negative thing that has ever been said about the film is neatly interchangeable with much of the original criticism of Tchaikovsky’s own music. That may be the greatest endorsement this brilliant film could have.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

7 thoughts on “The Music Lovers

  1. Ken Hanke

    Christ, Steve dredged up that awful original trailer! The film is considerably more lively than the narration on that.

  2. kjh.childers

    Ken
    Had a go at this dandy of a Russell film.
    Moments of such delight intertwined with a sadness
    I am not sure I’ve ever experienced.

    I can’t say that this is better than Russell’s adaption of Mahler.
    I find both composers among the finest I’ve heard.
    And, Russell is so brilliant in capturing that music to film.

    Chamberlain win a nomination for this role?

  3. Ken Hanke

    I always found it interesting that Ken had made two large scale films on two of my favorite composers before I even knew who he was. And though I didn’t know it then — there was a lot of music I heard in old horror movies that I didn’t know who wrote — but it turned out that Franz Liszt was another favorite. No wonder I went gaga over his work.

    The only reason I think its rep. has gone higher than Mahler‘s is that it’s bigger (that’s actually an illusion), more polished, and, well, I think Tchaikovsky’s music is more of a crowd-pleaser and is better known.

    And, no, Chamberlain got no nomination for this, nor did anyone else. In fact, it cost Ken some of the critical good will Women in Love had gotten him. Personally, I think it’s by far the better film.

  4. kjh.childers

    Considering that this film appeared in 1970,
    the brotherly-bond relationship between Peter and Count Anton (who I think was the most sinister of them all at attempting to win over the love of the great composer) may have not set in too well with an American audience who had heard about the NYC Stonewall riots … just an observation on my part.

    The reason I asked about whether Chamberlain had won awards or at least nominations for his portrayal, is just how convincing he is at “playing the piano” and to be honest, this may have been the first time, for me, to have heard so much Tchaikowsky all in one place.

    I love to show my daughters portions of Mahler and even this film now, where the music and the imagery on film come together in such harmony, e.g. Mahler sitting in his hut @ Steinbach am Attersee, while his wife successfully rids the milieu of the noise, e.g. cow bells, shepherd’s flute, etc.

    I may just have to find the soundtrack for this film.

  5. Ken Hanke

    may have not set in too well with an American audience who had heard about the NYC Stonewall riots …

    I suspect it had more to do with naked Glenda in the train carriage and the cannon blowing people’s heads off in the “1812 fantasy” — and the overall “upsetting” and “inappropriate” tone of the film in dealing with an historical person. (The Russians were pissed off because they were still pretending Tchaikovsky wasn’t gay.) I don’t think there was anywhere near the negative reaction to The Boys in the Band, which came out the same year.

    The reason I asked about whether Chamberlain had won awards or at least nominations for his portrayal, is just how convincing he is at “playing the piano”

    That was one of the advantages of him doing the role rather than Alan Bates (the original choice). Chamberlain at least knew how to play the piano so he could credibly mime it. By the way, am I the only one who finds this a curious choice for a closeted actor?

    I may just have to find the soundtrack for this film.

    If you mean The Music Lovers, there was a soundtrack album on vinyl. I don’t think there is one for Mahler since nearly all the music in it was taken from the Bernard Haitink Mahler cycle on Phillips. There was a day when I could have told you where each piece was from down to the movement (there’s nothing from the 8th Symhphony), but I’m out of practice. I could peg a good bit of it still.

  6. Chip Kaufmann

    Hardly a curious choice if you think about it. THE MUSIC LOVERS gave Chamberlain the chance to “come out” without having to come out. It also enabled him to leave DR KILDARE behind just as another closeted actor, Dirk Bogarde, did ACCIDENT to get rid of his DOCTOR films persona.

  7. Ken Hanke

    No, it still strikes me as peculiar if you intend — as he did — to remain in the closet. Anyone concerned with public presumption would know that a part of the public has trouble separating onscreen and real life.

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