The Music Lovers


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Writer-director Ken Russell is a classical music buff. He has filmed portions of operas, has directed operas on stage, and made a series of films about the lives of composers, including Elgar, Mahler and Liszt. This particular film is part of that series and offers his take on Tchaikovsky, as played by Richard Chamberlain.

It would be a disservice to both Russell and Tchaikovsky to call this a biopic, because it is not intended to be a historically accurate recitation of verified facts. It is rather Russell's speculation about how an elderly Tchaikovsky might have looked back on his life if he were experiencing feverish dreams while listening to his own music. Events and characters are distorted and exaggerated in the way we tend to do when we recall distant memories, magnifying the significance of those things which had the greatest emotional impact on us, making the merely unpleasant seem grotesque and repulsive, and the pleasant seem glittering.

As the story is told here, Tchaikovsky's psyche is ruled by his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with the "decency" required of him by 19th century Russian society. He marries an impoverished, lusty, uneducated woman who adores him passionately, thus dooming both of them to great unhappiness and frustration.

In order to "pitch" the commercial viability of a film about classical music, Russell described the film to his backers as "the story of a homosexual married to a nymphomaniac," and the auteur did not fail to deliver on the lurid possibilities of that premise. Don't expect this film to be a measured, thoughtful treatment of the great composer. It is at times surreal, over-the-top, farcical, and debauched. Its pacing is manic, bordering on hysterical. Don't expect to see the kind of languorous, one-camera tracking shots that were popular in other 1970-era films about serious topics. Ken Russell was not trying to make stately films in the manner of Bergman, Kubrick or Tarkovsky. He was more like Fellini on speed. In 2011 we are used to seeing films that consist of hundreds of rapid-fire cuts, but Russell was a pioneer of this technique in 1970, to a point where it seemed that he packed far more scenes and images into his films than any other director of his time. Even when he sticks to a scene from start to finish without cutting back-and-forth to some other times or places, Russell may incorporate dozens of different camera angles into his presentation, using none of them for more than a few seconds. When my ex-wife and I saw Russell's "The Devils" in 1971, after having seen "The Music Lovers" a few months earlier, she opined that Russell could have remade the leisurely paced "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a one-minute commercial. She wasn't exaggerating by that much.

Do I think that Ken Russell did a good job on this film? Absolutely. Russell may or may not be your kind of guy, but the man had talent.

First of all, the music is tremendous. Andre Previn directed the London Symphony Orchestra in creating a marvelous all-Tchaikovsky score for this film. By the way, Richard Chamberlain's face and hands were both in the frame when he played the piano in this role, and some of the music required complicated keyboarding. We are actually hearing a professional pianist, Rafael Orozco, but Chamberlain had to learn the fingering. I don't play the piano, so I'm not the guy to make the call, but I found Chamberlain quite convincing.

The real success of the film is not the music itself because film is, after all, a visual medium. What impresses me is that the visuals provide a perfect accompaniment to Tchaikovsky's compositions, always seeming to suit the music, irrespective of whether the portrayed actions are based on reality. The images are tender, pathetic, joyful, or frenetic when the music calls for it. In creating the concept, the author-director first tried to condense Tchaikovsky's life into its essence, as the composer himself might have encapsulated it in a dream state. Russell then set the most memorable images from that dream-life to the great genius's music, attempting to show how certain events and/or moods in Tchaikovsky's life might have corresponded to or have inspired his work. If you take the film on its own terms, accepting Russell's sense of humor as well as his historical distortions, you may find the film to be an intense experience and an inspired, if occasionally trashy, piece of art.

Just don't take any of it too seriously, and don't expect it to be consistently uplifting. Art is not always pretty, and art is not life. Sometimes they're not even that similar.

And that can be a good thing.

At the time of this review, The Music Lovers is not yet on Blu-Ray or Region 1 DVD.








2 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
  Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)


7.0 IMDB summary (of 10)




The film posits that Tchaikovsky committed "suicide by cholera" when he deliberately drank from a glass of unboiled water. That is a unique hybrid of two common speculations about the composer's death. Some say he committed suicide. Others say he contracted cholera, albeit not intentionally. There are other theories as well. Some say he was poisoned, and the most radical of those claims argue that the poisoning was ordered by the Czar himself.

Whatever, dude.

While the film's version of the story is probably more than a little nutty, there is no conclusive evidence that would lead us to accept any one established explanation of Tchaikovsky's death. It is a mystery that continues to baffle us to this day.



Glenda Jackson performed three scenes in various stages of undress, including some rather explicit gynecological exposure on her frustrating "honeymoon."

Another scene involves two actresses. Tchaikovsky mistakenly enters a bathroom, sees a woman bathing, and flashes back to a scene in his childhood when he saw his mother being treated for cholera by a primitive bathing method. The woman playing his mother is named Consuela Chapman, but I could not identify the younger, prettier woman who inspires the flashback.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is top-notch genre fare: odd, mad, and sometimes surreal, but also touched by more than a little genius.