Here’s a chance to get your feet wet in the realm of Ken Russell movies prior to the Asheville Film Festival, where he’ll be this year’s guest of honor and recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The Music Lovers — or to give the movie its full onscreen title,Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and the Music Lovers — is one of Russell’s best — and among his most controversial.
The Music Lovers has been called by Andre Previn (who conducted the music for it), “The best film ever made about a composer.” It has likewise been denounced as “overwrought” and worse by some less enthused critics, especially at the time of its release in 1970.
I’m very much more in Previn’s camp, though I’d stop short of singling Music Lovers out as the best, if only because there are a couple other Russell films on composers also in the running.
As the title suggests, this film isn’t just about Tchaikovsky, but also about the people in the composer’s life, and about Russell’s personal reaction to the man and his music. The director was allowed to make the film mostly because of the phenomenal success of his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, but this project still wasn’t an easy sell. Faced with the disinclination of studios to bankroll a movie about a classical composer, Russell went for the most brazenly lurid description of the project he could think of, telling United Artists, “It’s about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.”
Well, this was 1970, and the movies were stretching their artistic muscles based on the advent of the ratings system introduced two years earlier. So something that sounded that daring caught the studio’s interest. The only thing was that the film actually was that daring — both in its content and its approach.
Music Lovers was boldly operatic and didn’t flinch from depicting even the most unpleasant aspects of its story, no matter how frankly sexual. Images of almost heartbreaking beauty sit right next to scenes of extreme grotesquery. The sequence where Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his patron, Madame von Meck (Isabella Telezynska, The Devils), see each other on the road (set to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Second Symphony”), and the one where he delivers his “Fourth Symphony” to her (set to the second movement of that symphony) are among the most beautiful scenes ever committed to film.
But — and this is key to understanding Music Lovers — these things are counterpointed by the famous scene where Tchaikovsky’s wife, Nina (Glenda Jackson, Women in Love), makes drunken, naked, amorous advances on her unresponsive husband in a train carriage, and other scenes of truly ugly occurrences. Russell is intent on showing the price that Tchaikovsky and the people in his life paid, in part to bring the man’s glorious music to life – and on showing the underside of the Romantic “ideal” and the horrors of self-sublimation. It is not for nothing that the one person in the film who is finally confronted with reality is Nina — the one least capable of dealing with it.
But more, Russell did something with this biopic about a composer that no one had done to this degree (and rarely at all): He let the music shape and drive the film itself, approaching this project more as if he were directing a musical. In a sense, the film is a musical — a new kind of one, complete with what might be termed production numbers. These range from the lyrical (the “First Piano Concerto”) to the gaudily commercial (the “1812 Overture”); sometimes, more than one aspect is contained in the same musical sequence.
Whether the film enthralls you or appalls you, I very much doubt you’ll be indifferent to The Music Lovers. Rated R.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Music Lovers on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville(From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West and turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]