The first theatrical feature in Ken Russell's series of unconventional composer biopics, The Music Lovers must be a frustrating experience for sticklers for historical accuracy and Tchaikovsky purists. But thank God he didn't make a stuffy, narratively driven depiction of the 19th Century Russian composer's life. The hidebound biopic genre could use more of Russell's verve and trademark stylistic excess.
Kicking off a particularly fertile decade for Russell -- it would be immediately followed by controversial masterpiece The Devils and the sublime Broadway musical adaptation The Boy Friend -- The Music Lovers hits the high points of Tchaikovsky's (Richard Chamberlain) biography while probing deep into the character's psychological state by virtue of hypnotic nightmare, fantasy and flashback sequences.
Piano teacher and composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky is in danger of having his blossoming career derailed by his homosexuality. He longs for a relationship with Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable), but must suppress who he is in order to stay in the establishment's good graces. His choice for a sham marriage -- the quivering nymphomaniac Nina (Glenda Jackson) -- couldn't be a worse one. She deludes herself into believing he's hopelessly in love with her while he recoils from her raging sexuality, and each one becomes increasingly dissatisfied.
Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky's career receives a boon in the form of patronage from the wealthy Madame Nadedja von Meck (Izabella Telezynska), who believes he is a genius despite public skepticism. She insists they are never to meet, and in seclusion, he is able to compose away from the distracting influence of his wife.
Despite his reputation, Russell is perfectly capable of mounting lavish, respectable costume drama-type scenes, and his gracefully gliding camera establishes an appropriate period environment for the film. That makes his characteristic lurid outbursts all the more potent in contrast.
Yes, scenes where Tchaikovsky remembers the boiling water treatment his cholera-stricken mother was subjected to or his wife attempts to seduce him and Tchaikovsky's point-of-view reveals the outright grotesqueness of it all are way over-the-top. But they're also brilliantly staged and blocked mini-movies, scored by Tchaikovsky's triumphant compositions. The collection of these moments could be half as coherently strung together as they are here, and The Music Lovers would still be a fitfully realized masterpiece. That the film rarely loses its narrative momentum just makes the experience all the better.
Russell's films seem destined to be disrespected in the home video market, with The Boy Friend relegated to the Warner Archive and The Devils practically buried by Warner in the United States. (Thankfully, the BFI was able to wrangle UK DVD rights away for a forthcoming, albeit slightly censored, region 2 release.) The Music Lovers also gets the burn-on-demand treatment, with an MGM Limited Edition Collection release.
Fortunately, this is a pretty solid disc, with only minor speckling detracting from the generally bold colors and sharply rendered images. Print damage means certain scenes have a rather washed-out quality, but overall, the film looks quite nice. Naturally, the DVD-R disc comes devoid of extras.