‘The Music Lovers’: A Tchaikovsky biopic that’s a bit ‘pathetique’

This week, Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Philharmonic for two nights of Tchaikovsky at the Hollywood Bowl. As a public service to anyone attending the concerts, The Same Cinema Every Night would like to dissuade you from renting Ken Russell’s 1970 biopic of Tchaikovsky. Here’s why:

The Music Lovers is a freely imagined account of  Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Nina Miliukova, or, in Russell’s own description, “the story of a homosexual married to a nymphomaniac.” That sounds like the tagline for a B movie to me: I can see it, capped by an exclamation point, on the movie poster for some low-budget ‘50s or ‘60s exploitation flick that masks its inherent luridness with a veneer of high-minded sociological inquiry.

Alas, for all the filmmaking craft on display — not to mention the protective coating of “high culture,” i.e., Tchaikovsky’s music, heard throughout the film — The Music Lovers’ approach to its subject still feels rooted in exploitation, in a way that feels tacky and dated today. It’s as if you’re sitting in a theatre with the director right next to you, and throughout the movie he’s constantly elbowing you, slapping your knee and going, “A homosexual married to a nymphomaniac! Isn’t that the most outrageous thing you ever heard?”

raving and hysterical is right

Hmmm, how does a movie studio promote a movie about a Russian composer?

In this account of the life of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain), the young composer’s problems only really begin when he resolves to “change,” to marry his admirer Nina (Glenda Jackson) in the hopes of leading a “normal, respectable” life. But far from leading a blissful, platonic life as brother and sister, as Tchaikovsky initially hopes, his marriage to Nina is corroded by his awareness of how inherently false it is. In this telling, it’s clear he would have been much happier if he had been able to continue with his “friend” Count Anton (Christopher Gable) without drawing public attention to the relationship.

What damages the film’s credibility is the way Tchaikovsky himself is portrayed. In keeping with Russell’s penchant for the overblown, Chamberlain is unabashedly hammy, in a dinner-theatre style that you just never see in movies nowadays. For most of the film, he alternates between two modes: either he has his head flung back, his eyes closed, with a huge, pearly smile — I’m a creative, passionate genius, drinking in life to the fullest! Or he’s fixed in an intense stare, lightly trembling, his mouth open — I’m a brilliant composer with gifts far beyond your understanding, and I’m seized in the throes of artistic creation!

For half an hour or so, it’s possible to enjoy The Music Lovers. Even if the movie veers toward silliness, it’s always an eyeful, and never dull, especially not with a sort of Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits on the soundtrack, courtesy of Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Fiercely committed to his vision, Russell has an admirable lack of irony — you just wish there were more smarts on display. Russell values how things look on screen to the point of not caring a whit what they mean, or whether they make any sense. The narrative is just a pretext in the filmmaker’s relentless search for the next arresting image, wherein the camera setup and saturated colors will be gauged for maximum visual impact, and no matter if the images are so self-conscious that the viewer is pulled out of the story.

Genius and madness!

Nothing could be more obvious than to state that Russell’s movies are in love with their own excess. But one problem with his pumped-up imagery is that in a feature film it becomes exhausting; the viewer’s eye becomes jaded from all the razzle-dazzle.

It doesn’t help that The Music Lovers gets dumber as it goes along. To begin with, Russell can’t help staging Tchaikovsky and Nina’s attempts at intimacy for maximum grotesquerie. There’s a moment of embarrassing low camp in the sleeping compartment of a train: confronted with his wife’s naked form, Tchaikovsky reacts with bug-eyed hysteria, and the movie never quite recovers. (Broad and ridiculous as it is — unintentionally, I assume — the scene got me wondering what a chamber of horrors a Catherine Breillat take on this story would be.) Typically, Glenda Jackson gives her all to the moment, and seems to be performing in an entirely different film than Chamberlain, who frequently suggests a wax dummy that’s just learning how to simulate emotions.

The movie becomes even more egregiously dumb during its last half hour. When Tchaikovsky loses his patron, his brother Modeste (Kenneth Colley) calmly suggests that Tchaikovsky start conducting himself. The composer is indignant; he finds the very idea vulgar. Suddenly we jump-cut to a non sequitur of a fantasy montage wherein Modeste, previously the most sober-minded of fellows, is transformed into a shamelessly venal impresario, hurling bills through the air as he sells (out) his brother to a hysterical crowd, in a tableaux that’s like a Tsarist Russia version of The Day of the Locust. Tchaikovsky then fantasizes about blowing off his enemies’ heads with cannonballs while the 1812 Overture plays, and once again the viewer has the sense of Russell cracking himself up behind the camera.

Russell’s admirers use words like romantic, delirious, intoxicating, visionary, etc., to characterize his work. The Music Lovers is a film that often seems to be striving for the status of exalted kitsch, but only the score attains transcendence. The rest remains stubbornly earthbound and risible.

Russell’s too-too-much sensibility seem like the product of an era of affluence, and it’s no wonder his work fell out of favor — or was relegated to the status of period artifact — in the more ironic, emotionally recessive ensuing decades. The swirling, extravagant nonsense of The Music Lovers tempts me to say that Baz Luhrmann is Russell’s one true cinematic heir, but that’s probably an insult to Russell.

For more info on the L.A. Philharmonic performances of Tchaikovsky at the Hollywood Bowl, click here.

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