|Ken Russell claimed his film was not so much the story of Tchaikovsky as it |
was a commentary on the destructive force of dreams on reality
So often, biopics hide behind the “based on true events” excuse to justify the overuse of clichés, coincidence, choppy storytelling, and flat characterizations. Storytelling flaws that would never pass muster in the construction of a purely fictional screenplay. I prefer when biographical movies make an attempt at hewing out a unique dramatic thrust of a story while still sticking somewhat closely to real-life events. Good biographical films are those which I can enjoy as stand-alone narratives. Stories that compel and keep my interest independent of any foreknowledge I have of the famous personality or the alleged veracity of the events depicted.
What Price Success?
The one director whom I consider to be one of the screen’s most gifted fictional documentarians is Ken Russell, a director whose biopics lean to the wildly subjective, daringly interpretive, and highly stylized. His films and BBC TV plays about the lives of Rudolph Valentino, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Henri Gaudier, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy, are splendid paradoxes: they are frustratingly fruitless sources of biographical fact, yet they're bountiful vessels of emotional honesty.
|Richard Chamberlain as Peter IlyichTchaikovsky|
|Glenda Jackson as Antonina Milyukova|
|Christopher Gable as Count Anton Chiluvsky|
|Izabella Telezynska as Madame Nadejda von Meck|
|Sabina Maydelle as Sasha Tchaikovsky|
|Kenneth Colley as Modeste Tchaikovsky|
The full themes of The Music Lovers are revealed in the next sequence, which has all the individuals from the opening scene reassembled at the Moscow Conservatory on the occasion of Tchaikovsky’s debut of his Piano Concerto no.1 in B-flat Minor. Again utilizing a device employed to similar effect in The Boy Friend, Russell familiarizes us with the main players in his drama by granting us access to their fantasies and innermost desires. It is here that Tchaikovsky and each of his “loves” – his impassioned music; his sister Sasha, for whom he has a quasi-incestuous attachment; melancholy patron of the arts, Madame von Meck; the mentally unstable fantasist (and future wife of convenience) Nina; and his real but forbidden love, the foppish Count Chiluvsky – all reveal themselves to share a similar susceptibility and responsiveness to Romanticism and the Romantic Ideal.
|Max Adrian as Nicholas Rubinstein|
|Portrait of the Artist as a Babe|
In photographing Tchaikovsky in a manner redolent of Hollywood's glamorized biographies of historical figures, Ken Russell mocks the romantic myth of artists nobly suffering for their craft
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Ken Russell's signature penis-themed imagery appears in this fantasy sequence in which Modeste, Tchaikovsky's pragmatic brother, vanquishes the parasitic "music lovers" in the composer's life
|Fear of scandal and a denial of self inspires Tchaikovsky to shun the affections of his lover, preferring instead to hide behind his sham marriage and his long-distance infatuation with benefactress, Madame von Meck|
Following an established pattern, Nina works herself into a romantic delirium over
an unprepossessing Russian hussar she's never met (actor Ben Aris, who played Sally Simpson's proselytizing father in Ken Russell's Tommy).
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Nina Meets Her Rival
Costume designer Shirley Russell uses color to emphasize the connection between
Tchaikovsky's actual and illusory loves. Christopher Gable & Richard Chamberlain later co-starred in the 1976 musical The Slipper and the Rose
Biographers don’t tend to devote much space to the marriage, but Russell depicts Nina, and Tchaikovsky's cruel treatment of her, as a symbol of the film's theme. She's a tragic figure representing the destructive side of reality avoidance, her mental and emotional deterioration a hysterical indictment of Tchaikovsky's weakness of character and the false promises held forth by his unabashedly romantic compositions.
|Nina Ends Her Days In An Insane Asylum|
In love with both the man and his music, wealthy widow Madame von Meck (here with her twin sons) supports Tchaikovsky for thirteen years and is content to love him from afar
My appreciation of The Music Lovers is rooted not in its status as biography, but in its thought-provoking themes examining the origins of artistic creativity and the heavy price that's often extracted.
When Richard Chamberlain came out as gay in his 2003 memoir Shattered Love, one of the things he was fond of saying during his media tour was that after a lifetime of living in fear, how liberating it was to finally be himself. Yet one of his strongest epiphanies was the realization that his being gay was the least interesting, most benign thing about him.
In the context of what Ken Russell explores in The Music Lovers, it's inconceivable to me that a life lived in total denial of who one actually is would fail to leave a mark on the soul of any sensitive individual...on the soul of an artist, most acutely.
In all its frenetic hysteria, The Music Lovers asks us to entertain the possibility that Peter Tchaikovsky, a romantic prohibited from freely expressing love as he would choose, was forced, because of his homosexuality, to channel all of his tortured emotions, suppressed pain, and unexpressed passion into his music. Russell doesn't use Tchaikovsky's homosexuality for shock value or fodder for gossip; he makes a case for the artist's socially-unacceptable sexuality being the very source of his creative genius. In Russell's vision, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is neither benign nor unimportant...it is the defining aspect in the shaping of the man's character and the cause of his heartfelt romantic longing.
Leave it to Ken Russell - instead of just another biopic heralding the achievements of a famed composer, he constructed a sensual think-piece that invites me to contemplate the art as well as the artist.
The reason for this film's windy full title: Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, was so as not to be confused with the Russian film Tchaikovsky by Igor Talankin that came out that same year. (A 1970 production not released in the U.S. until 1972).
|Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Tchaikovsky|