Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: "The Music Lovers" Loves Tchaikovsky (In Memoriam: Ken Russell)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 26 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Music Lovers (1970)
Running time: 123 minutes (2 hours, 3 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Ken Russell
WRITER: Melvyn Bragg (based upon the books by Catherine Drinker and Barbara von Meck)
PRODUCER: Ken Russell
EDITOR: Michael Bradsell


Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Gable, Kenneth Colley, Isabella Telezynska, and Maureen Pryor

Must genius suffer for the sake of his art? That’s just one of the themes of Ken Russell’s wild and fanciful, The Music Lovers, the 1970 biographical film about the life and career of Romantic-era Russian composer, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. The film covers the rise of his star at the Moscow Conservatory to his death in 1893 and focuses on the sweeping beauty of his music, as well as the tragedies of his personal life as they influenced his musical output.

As the film begins, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) teaches harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. He is composing his early music, but it meets with disfavor from his mentor Nicholas Rubinstein (Max Adrian), who got him the position at the Conservatory. At this point, the film becomes what we might now consider a music video. Russell uses Tchaikovsky’s music to illustrate the young musician’s personal moods and his confidence in himself as a composer. Of course, Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful, but when Russell combines the music with powerful visuals, he makes us feel the composer’s joy for life and for his art. It’s a heady, emotional rush; personally, my eyes were literally glued to the screen and my spirits soared with sublime beauty of Tchaikovsky’s jams. I simply couldn’t escape the impressionistic sensations that literally bleed from the film. The music soars and the visuals rush by in a stream of surrealistic landscapes, so you can’t help but be caught up with and in Tchaikovsky.

The film does take some liberties with history as many films of this type do. The composer gains a patron, a wealthy widow, Madam Nadezhda von Meck (Isabella Telezynska), who provides him with a annual allowance which helps him to find more time to compose. Around that same time, he meets and marries Antonina Milyukova (Glenda Jackson), a student at the conservatory who sends him a love letter. The film severely compresses the time between Madam von Meck’s endowment and the composer’s marriage to his admirer, which is historically inaccurate. However Russell plays the effect of these two relationships on the composer off each other.

In Russell’s film the marriage stunts Tchaikovsky’s development as a composer much to the chagrin of his patron, his teachers, his friends, and his brother Modeste (Kenneth Colley). The marriage is unhappy from the onset and is not helped by the arrival of his mother-in-law (Maureen Pryor). Instead, Russell creates an idealized romantic love between Tchaikovsky and Madam von Meck that contrasts with his troubled marriage to Nina. The burdens of maintaining these two vastly different romances move the film forward to its tragic resolutions.

That’s probably the most powerful thing about this film, the juxtaposition of the sublime beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music and the debilitating traumas of his personal relationships. Usually, such extreme misery would be a turnoff, but Russell frames everything in the context of Tchaikovsky’s beloved compositions. Everything that happens to the composer in his film is understood in the context of the music. In a sense, you have to wonder what came first. On one hand, I can realize that the music came from his life experiences, but in the framework of the movie, I got the feeling that the music, whether through the influence of his patrons, admirers, friends, or family, was the master controller. Russell beautifully presents this conflict of creativity: the music or the life, which comes first? He takes full advantage of the visual possibilities of film, while opening up the senses to what the addition of sound can do for the movie viewing experience.

The performances are brilliant, but I especially give kudos to Ms. Jackson as Nina. Her transformation from a beautiful young thing to pitiable mental case is astonishing. She essentially plays two people, and she reinforces that by undergoing an almost total physical transformation from romantic heroine to tragic, broken woman.

For those who love Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers is an interesting take on the famed composer’s life, and fans of his will certainly love the music. For lovers of films, this is a peak work by one of the great visual stylists, a man whose work is an eye-popping blend of the grandiose, the bizarre, and the beautiful.

8 of 10


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