The Music Lovers (Russell) 1971.   BFI Blu Ray 2024.


“…there’s as much tranquillity in my film on Tchaikovsky as there is in his music…Great heroes are the stuff of myth and legend, not facts.  Music and facts don’t mix. Tchaikovsky said: ‘My life is in my music.’  And who can deny that the man’s music is not utterly fantastic”

                                                                       Ken Russell


If you approach The Music Lovers expecting this composer biopic to stick to all of the facts of Tchaikovsky’s life you will be sorely disappointed.  For this is Ken Russell territory where the musical purists rage or flee as vulgarian Ken channels his very personal Tchaikovsky through high octane emotional excess.  The question is then does the excess marry with the music well enough to produce a good film?  Yes!  For me Tchaikovsky’s heart on the sleeve, passionate, romantic, often dark and intensely melodic music receives the best screen treatment ever.

The Music Lovers manages to engage with a breathless technical brilliance.  How fluidly Russell’s camera moves, with Fellini-like confidence, richly enhanced by Douglas Slocombe’s photography.  Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky manages to be both superbly enthusiastic and manic depressive. Watching the wonderful Glenda Jackson as Nina, Tchaikovsky’s wife, go crazy is moving and enthralling.  Andre Previn and the LSO really deliver.

Melvyn Bragg’s screenplay brings coherence to the high dramatics.  And Ken Russell’s editing and exuberant compositions possess a dazzling energy (The film’s daring 7 minute sequence, minus dialogue, of a performance of the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano concerto, intercut with daydreaming scenes of the women, Tchaikovsky’s sister, Nina and his patron Madame Von Meck, creates a bold fantasia outline of what’s to come.)

Tchaikovsky’s inability to physically consummate his marriage to Nina reveals how much he’s in denial about his homosexuality.  This is constantly shadowed by Tchaikovsky’s morbid concern with fate.  The fate motif opening, of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony, is effectively used during the scene were Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable), a spurned lover, reveals to Madame von Meck (Izabella Telezynska) that Tchaikovsky is gay.

Not only fate determines Tchaikovsky’s mental state but his egocentricity: an inability to love both men and women, for his ruthless drive to write music consumes him.  He says he wants marriage without a wife.  To be read as respectability in order to survive as a composer.

The Music Lovers is often accused as having some of the most harrowing moments in Russell’s career.  The final Nina asylum scenes are certainly on par with Russell’s The Devils but are also sad and moving.  And they are balanced with a first half containing much lyricism and warmth.  At times Russell does employ some ill judged, bad taste tactics (The striping off, drunken seduction scene on the train to Moscow) and overall you certainly can’t describe The Music Lovers as subtle.  But Russell does make you care for his characters.  And more importantly he deeply cares for the music. Alongside of Terence Davies Russell’s ability to match images with classical music is unerringly inspired.

The film’s extended title is Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and theMusic Lovers. Russell’s films often reveal the issue of fan adulation and exploitation of a writer or composer (see Gothic and his BBC TV Elgar film).  Most of the characters in The Music Lovers only get closer to Tchaikovsky through their adoration of his seductive music.  Apart from his sister Sasha (Sabina Maydelle) Tchaikovsky gives those, nearest to him, emotional small change.

Tchaikovsky’s rigidity constantly frustrates everyone and has tragic consequences – Nina’s collapse into madness.  So you can’t really blame people going violently over the top to access him.  Russell’s accompanying force, which equally frustrates and releases all those concerned, is his deep passion for Tchaikovsky’s “utterly fantastic” music in what is still a highly entertaining film.  

Alan Price©2024