Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Before my recent essays on Mommie Dearest and Behind the Candelabra got me thinking about the form and function of the biographical movie as a genre, I don’t know that I’d ever given much thought as to what I personally look for in a biopic.

While I know I’m comfortable relinquishing a certain level of historical fidelity for the sake of drama and a filmmaker’s vision (for example, I don’t mind the glamorization and historical inaccuracies in 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde); I do find I lose patience with complete whitewash jobs that alter historical fact in an effort to sanitize the subject and adhere to a standardized Hollywood biofilm format (the 1946 Cole Porter biopic Night & Day turned the life of the homosexual composer into just another conventional heterosexual love story).

I guess when I’m really out to learn something about the life of a historical figure, I tend to go to a documentary or a book; but when it comes to biographical films, I don’t mind if a filmmaker plays fast and loose with the “facts” if in the end, what they deliver is some kind of “truth.”
And by that I mean, rather than simply chronicling the events of an individual’s life, I prefer when the director and writer of a biopic find a way to use the life story of a public figure to say something broader about humanity, art, the creative process, cultural myths, or the pernicious lure of fame and the American success ethic. In such instances, I gladly surrender encyclopedic accuracy to creative interpretation.
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
If I’m going to invest time watching a fictional reenactment of a real-life narrative (something to which even the most meticulous biopic must ultimately lay claim), I’m of a mind to look to the filmmaker who is capable of creating order out of chaos; able to find poetry within the banal; and willing to unearth something universal and profound in the neutral, haphazard events which make up a human life. Especially a life deemed exceptional enough to biographize.
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.
Tchaikovsky Triumphant
What Price Success?
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) is an excellent example of a biographical film transcending its subject material. The film works whether or not one has an interest in boxing or is unaware that Jake LaMotta was a real person. It's an emotionally and dramatically credible story buoyed by (but not reliant upon) being based on true events.
By way of contrast, Alan Parker's 1996 musical Evita (a project to which Ken Russell was briefly attached) has a fascinating and incredibly complex individual at its center, but the movie is so lacking in a point of view or perspective about its subject (due more perhaps to the flaws inherent in Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice's treatment), the entire film - which seems comprised exclusively of processions and marches - has no narrative thrust beyond "It actually happened!" historical regurgitation.

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
Ken Russell first became known to American audiences (this American audience, anyway) by way of his second film, the soporific 1967 Michael Caine spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain (his first feature film French Dressing – 1964, I’ve yet to see). While he indisputably hit his artistic stride with the poetic and well-received adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), Ken Russell, the baby-faced enfant terrible of cinematic excess who scandalized sensibilities and drove Pauline Kael to distraction, didn’t really show his face until his fourth film, the controversial and polarizing The Music Lovers.

Based on the 1937 book Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikovsky and Nadejda von Meck, The Music Lovers is Ken Russell’s fever-dream vision of the life of the famed 19th-century Russian composer. And I’m not just using fever dream as an easy expression. At times The Music Lovers looks exactly like the kind of overheated dream one would have after falling asleep listening to Tchaikovsky while pulling an all-nighter studying for an exam on the composer.
Kenneth Colley as Modeste Tchaikovsky
Originally titled The Lonely Heart, the film’s full title: Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers clues us in that this is to be Ken Russell’s uniquely personal, subjectively emotional (some would say hysterical) look at the tortured life of the artist.

To the frenetic accompaniment of The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Clowns,” the film’s first frames thrust us directly into the center of the joyous revelries of a Moscow winter carnival. This moment is important to savor, for it is one of the last times genuine happiness makes an appearance in the film outside of idealized images in impossible fantasies.

As he would do in his next film The Boy Friend (1971), Ken Russell uses the opening sequence of The Music Lovers to introduce all the film's major characters in context of their personalities and interrelationships – present and future – before we actually know who they are. This not only has the effect of heightening our visual alertness (we are asked to absorb and store narrative information we will draw upon later), but it invites us from the start to voluntarily surrender to what Russell will later demand: that we experience his film as pure sensation and emotion…just as one might experience Tchaikovsky’s compositions.

Born This Way
The Music Lovers presents Tchaikovsky's denial of his homosexuality as the source of his greatest torment. Our first glimpse of the composer, cavorting with his lover (Christopher Gable) at a winter fair, culminating in the pair collapsing drunk and contentedly in bed - is also the last time we ever see him happy

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.

The inherent unattainability of said ideal suggested by the extravagant-bordering-on-absurd visual extremes of each fantasy; its anguish reflected in the real-life self-contradiction that has nearly everyone in question falling desperately in love with precisely the person least capable of returning it.
Max Adrian as Nicholas Rubinstein
With desire charting the path of the conjoined destinies of these individuals, The Music Lovers takes the position that Tchaikovsky, a gay man tortured by his homosexuality and his inability to lead a life of emotional truth, poured all of his impassioned fantasies and romantic dreams into his music. In centering his film on an artist who struggled to create artistic truth while being untrue to himself, Russell provocatively posits whether an inauthentic life can ever produce authentic art.
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

I didn’t see The Music Lovers when it was first released, but following on the heels of the comparatively restrained Women in Love, I can only imagine what a shock to the system Russell's horrorshow take on the life of Tchaikovsky was to 1970 audiences. After all these years I think The Music Lovers' brash imagery, feverish performances and bold disregard for conventional storytelling (and historical accuracy) still has the power to astonish. 
Phallic Frenzy
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
In no way, shape, or form is this a movie for all tastes. And indeed, I would agree with those who say it is fairly valueless as biography (although it did serve to spark my interest in the composer and led me to seek out the more traditional – but arguably just as false – Russian film on Tchaikovsky released in 1972) .
However, speaking as a confirmed dreamer, fantasist, and head-in-the-clouds romantic, I can’t praise Ken Russell enough for dramatizing in The Music Lovers precisely the conundrum that has always intrigued me about the arts, creativity, and the role of fantasy in our lives.
A spirited inner life is the common byproduct when restrictions are placed on the free expression and development of one’s true nature. So by framing the film’s central conflict around Tchaikovsky’s well-founded inability to come to terms with his homosexuality (it was illegal in Russia) and subsequent need to suppress his natural romantic desires in order to pursue his art (something Richard Chamberlain knew a thing or two about); The Music Lovers effectively explores fantasy from both sides of the issue.
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 
The beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music alone is evidence of the redemptive power of fantasy. But Russell, in holding the composer’s life in contrast to his art, asks us to contemplate how it is that the same dreamy nature capable of bringing forth "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" could also foster such a propensity for self-deception and (in his unfeeling use of Nina as a shield against gossip and his own fears about himself) selfishness. Tchaikovsky's infatuation with a Romantic Ideal gave the world great music, but in his personal life, it marred his perception and inhibited his ability to connect at all with any of the "music lovers" in his life in a realistic or even feeling manner.   
Bad Romance
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).

It's really saying something to note that in a resolutely emotional movie about a man who wrote resolutely emotional music, the central relationship between Tchaikovsky and Antonina “Nina” Milyukova stands out as one of the most impassioned. Tchaikovsky, against the wishes of his family and in an effort to conform to societal pressure, did in fact impulsively marry a woman he barely knew, a young music student from his conservatory. Their marriage was disastrous, the composer remaining married (the better to deflect rumors of his homosexuality) but deserting his wife within weeks of their wedding.

As envisioned by Russell, Tchaikovsky marries out of rebellious self-denial and romantic self-delusion, while Nina (Jackson) is depicted as just another dreamy fantasist. A mentally and emotionally unstable woman given to reckless romantic infatuations who sets her sights on wooing the composer because of his fame and stature. (I personally reject the nymphomaniac label, even in Russell's vision, simply because I’m weary of it being the lazy go-to word used by men who don’t know what else to call an actively sexual woman.) 
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. 

The Music Lovers' most controversial scene (of many, I assure you) is the honeymoon train journey which finds the visibly repulsed Tchaikovsky trapped in a tiny carriage car with his drunk, sexually rapacious bride. As the car jostles violently back and forth, Nina, now nude and unconscious, rolls about on the floor as Tchaikovsky literally climbs the walls in horror and disgust.
None of it should work (it's practically a burlesque of a gay man's reaction to seeing a vagina) but somehow it does. 
And that the sexually-conflicted composer should be portrayed by a sexually-conflicted actor (Richard Chamberlain came out in 2003 when he was 68 years old) adds heaps of unexpected subtext to the already over-the-top proceedings.
In this scene from Russell's Women in Love, Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and the artist Loerke (Vladek Sheybal) engage in a bit of play-acting, assuming the roles of Nina and Tchaikovsky during their honeymoon journey on the Trans-Siberian Express (minus the nude rolling about on the floor part).

Although my childhood is full of memories of my sister's major crush on Richard Chamberlain during his Dr. Kildare days, I can't say that I've actually seen him in very much. Certainly not enough to gauge how successful he was in his bid to shed his teen heartthrob image and be taken seriously as an actor. I do know that as leading men go, he's very easy on the eyes, and that I can find no fault with his performance here. Called upon to depict Tchaikovsky as a man of near-operatic heights of anguish and rapturous longing, Chamberlain, in perhaps his least decorative role ever, is more animated and vivid than I've ever seen him.
Nina Ends Her Days In An Insane Asylum
It's Glenda Jackson, already a personal favorite, who stands out most in my memory. Delivering an affecting performance that can also be as broad as a barn when required, she's just a marvel to behold. Her showier scenes got all the critical notice (and lambasting), but it's her smaller moments (like the range of emotions that play across her face when she meets Tchaikovsky for the first time) that make her Nina a rivetingly sympathetic, dynamic, ultimately pitiable character.

I don't have the space to pay tribute to them all, but the entire cast of The Music Lovers is uniformly top-notch. Fans of Ken Russell will recognize his familiar band of repertory players, each contributing invaluably to the whole.
Beloved Friend
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

Ken Russell is known for being a visual director, and on that score, The Music Lovers doesn't disappoint. The lush imagery and sumptuous costumes are more than a match for Tchaikovsky's colorful compositions. But because Russell's films are such an assault on the senses, I sometimes think the soundness of the ideas behind his films get shortchanged.
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.
While I've no doubt of this being Chamberlain's reality, his observation fascinated me. It fascinated me because of its failure to recognize (or accept) that if one's sexuality prompts one to spend an entire life "in the closet" and engaged in the non-stop denial of one's true nature, it can hardly be called a benign issue because a lifetime of self-rejection HAS to shape personality, perception, and reality.
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 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
This beautiful, more traditional recounting of the life of Tchaikovsky cost $20 million (to The Music Lovers' $3 million) was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and is available for viewing on YouTube HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2016


  1. Hi Ken - I have never seen this one, but as I get older I appreciate the extravagant and grandiose visions of Ken Russell more and more. Tommy will always be one of my all-time favorite films, and I also love the very flawed Valentino--for many of the reasons you mention about this biopic. I need to see Lizstomania again, it was unbelievably erotic to me when I first saw it on HBO as a teenager in the middle of the night. Recently finally saw Lair of the White Worm and was similarly impressed with Russell's clever use of cliche, his artistic eye, imaginative costume and production design, and the way he frees his actors to take chances. Ken Russell is one of cinema's boldest auteurs.

    Can't wait to see this one. I LOVE Richard Chamberlain AND Glenda Jackson!!

    1. Hi Chris
      I've always liked Ken Russell but like you, the older I get (and the blander films become) the more I appreciate his audacity as a storyteller.
      "tommy" is a major slam-dunk, as is The Boy Friend, but I look forward to revisiting "Valentino" and "Lisztomania" soon. His movies somehow seem like the perfect films to discover in one's teens (when his overstatement and sometimes crude humor really hits home) and reacquaint oneself with in adulthood.
      I think you will enjoy "The Music Lovers". Both Jackson and Chamberlain really swing for the fences.
      Thanks you so much, Chris!

  2. HUGE fan of Uncle Ken's - this is a classic, though obviously, like all of Ken's output, not to everyone's tastes.

    1. Yay! I kind of thought you'd be a fan, Mark. I am less fond of Russell's American-era films (Crimes of Passion on) but his 70s stuff is to die for.
      And no, they are not really for everyone's tastes. Nice to hear from you!

  3. I haven't seen this one, but, having read your detailed and fascinating post, I definitely want to seek it out. Like an earlier commenter, I find as I get older that I appreciate Ken Russell more. I think it's both his visual sense and his idiosyncrasy--he never does the expected. He also gets wonderful performances from his actors; and his sense of detail, in his period films is marvelous. In a way I'd compare his films to those of Powell & Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, etc), whose films are also individual and quirky, with an exquisite sense of texture, and able to take you into odd, exhilarating byways of thought and feeling.

    A little while back I saw Russell's 'Salome's Last Dance,' which I thought was both beautiful and provoking, as well as being splendidly acted (and also very funny - it's on youtube; I recommend it if you haven't seen it). I also understand what you mean by how Russell will create a scene that you think will fall flat but yet doesn't. Many years ago I watched one of Russell's TV biographies, this one of the composer Delius, which starred Max Adrian and Christopher Gable (like most auteurs, Russell seemed to gather his own stock company). I remember the final scene, of Delius's quiet funeral, with his assistant scattering white flower petals over his corpse--which struck me as something that could be cliched and kitschy, but yet I recall thinking, "My god, it WORKS!" The effect was indescribably lovely and moving. Russell had both the daring and the talent to pull off such scenes.

    1. Hi GOM
      Your description of Ken Russell and the pleasures to be found in his films is really on the mark. He is indeed one of those directors capable of pulling off the most flamboyant ideas and purple imagery.

      I've never heard him compared to Powell or Pressburger before, which surprises me because the it's such an ideal association.
      I have to thank you for mentioning Russell's Frederick Delius biography "Song of Summer" -I'd never seen it, but your description of the final scene sparked my interest and i see it's on YouTube! Yay! I'd better check it out soon, it looks marvelous.
      I also must revisit "Salome's Last Dance. I saw it once many years ago and have so little recollection of it, but with both you and Chris referencing it, I must give it another look.
      Hope you get to check "The Music Lovers" out sometime. It seemed so hysterical and back in the day, but it has aged remarkably well.

    2. the petal scattering really happened.

  4. Have you seen SAVAGE MESSIAH or DANTE'S INFERNO? They're two lesser-known early Ken Russell films, both excellent. MESSIAH is probably best known for the young Helen Mirren's nude scenes. INFERNO was a BBC biopic with Oliver Reed (excellent) as Dante Rosetti. In his early films, Russell was always interested in how the external lives of artists influenced their creative expression. Some would argue that bigger budgets and carte Blanche to do as he pleased was not always a complete boon to Russell. But in this day of cookie-cutter movies, we sure miss Russell's audacious and unique vision.

    Not long ago, I read a biography of Leonard Bernstein that expressed the same idea as Russell does in TML: while Bernstein was married and closeted, all of his outlets were channeled into his music and he produced some of the greatest American music of the mid-20th century. When his wife died and Bernstein came out, according to the book his musical output suffered (although I daresay his personal life was happier).

    1. Hi Deb
      I have never seen "Dante's Inferno" - but I have found it on YouTube so I hope to watch it soon. I did see "Savage Messiah" for the first time last year. I really enjoyed the movie, but had such a hard time with the actor playing Gaudier, I felt I only half experienced it.
      Russell really was in a class by himself in liberating the biographical film from the tribute/pedestal tradition. As I discover more of his BBC films it becomes clearer to me that this was even a stronger legacy than the late career excesses he came to be so associated with.
      In your citing the perhaps disadvantageous circumstances of big budgets and notoriety of his later years, Russell almost becomes a figure suitable for one of his own biographies (which he did with an odd little film about himself titled "A British Picture")in that his work came to reflect a man becoming a tad too self aware of the effect his art had on people.

      The biographical info you relay about Bernstein is perfect encapsulating exactly what "The Music Lovers" addresses. An extremely common phenomenon in the arts, one repeated through the ages and even today, but it's wonderful that Russell was one of the first (if not THE first) to bring such honesty to a genre known for distancing itself from its subjects and turning them into museum figures.
      Always fascinating to contemplate the role repression plays in the development of expressive creativity in people. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Deb!

  5. Ken, the first thing I want to say is thank you for these long, insightful posts. Especially your use of screencaps and captions - they're both funny and help illustrate your points.

    I have not seen The Music Lovers (!), only Mahler and Lisztomania from Russell's music oeuvre. I wish this was on the Criterion Collection which you can watch on Hulu but I don't believe it is - and it's not at my library either. But I will track it down, never fear. I agree re: your comments on Chamberlain, I can't help but wonder what thoughts were in his mind while making this but I guess we'll never know. Thanks for shining a light on Crazy Ken Russell - I may not love all his films, but I'm glad he existed. A movie in a way is a fever dream, and no one knew that more than him.

    1. Hi Tanya
      I can't imagine you'd ever come back to read this, but I'm correcting an oversight from five months ago! How I missed your lovely comment the first time around I'll never know, but I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.
      I hope by now you've tracked down a Ken Russell film or two. I've rewatched "Mahler" since, and it is even better than I remembered. Thanks, Tanya

  6. Whilst we're recommending Ken films, I would offer up Mahler which I love. It's not as grandiose as some of Ken's outings at the time, owing a little more to his BBC biopics that he made for the Monitor series like Delius and Elgar, but there are some truly wonderful, wicked set pieces.

    1. Mark, once again you channel so many of my Anglophile tastes! Just above I was singing hymns of praise for "Mahler".
      I found it to be just as you say, less baroque than his other films and more in line with his striking BBC films. I especially love Georgina Hale in in. A smaller but no less extraordinary Ken Russell film.
      Oh, and I saw his Delius film just last night. Wow! I was so impressed. Such a beautiful film.

  7. I too had a huuuge crush on Richard Chamberlain in my youth, albeit more from Richard Lester's two Musketeers films and the version of The Man in the Iron Mask he starred in--all of which seemed to be on continual repeat on tv during the late 70's/early 80's, and of course, there was The Thorn Birds...though the last time I rewatched that, at a much older age--and with my gaydar far more significantly developed--I couldn't help but read the subtext VERY differently. (Irrelevant fashion note: in the 80's I had a rather ecclesiastical-looking black coat that my friends and I always referred to as the Father Ralph de Bricassart.)

    Even more irrelevant trivia note: whenever I see Kenneth Colley, I always think, "Jesus!" Because that's who he played in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

    (ETA: sorry, had to delete and republish due to a typo. Because that's the kind of hyper-vigilant pedant I am.)

    1. Hi Lila
      Chamberlain is a major babe, but it's sort of strange how little Richard Chamberlain registered for me when I was growing up. I missed his entire reign as king of the TV miniseries (I only saw "The Thorn Birds" for the first time last year) and I always have to remind myself his was in The Three Musketeers, in spite of having seen that film more times than I can count.
      I guess my crushing on him in old age is better than nothing.
      I am impressed at the scope of pop-cultural references you have integrated into your real life. You're a woman after my own heart, as my friends often tire of me referencing movies at every turn and for every occasion.
      I liked Kenneth Colley in this so much, I had to IMDB him to see why I hadn't remembered him from more films. It turns out I hadn't seen him in all that many; merely "Life of Brian" (which I didn't remember at all, making your Jesus association all the more amusing) and the times he was cast by Ken Russell.

  8. Thank you for giving The Music Lovers a well deserved showcase on your blog.

    The Music Lovers messed with my gay little head when I was all of 16 years old. I saw it on a double bill with Savage Messiah. Taking in those two films was overwhelming. (Myra Breckinridge didn't prepare me at all!) They left me with the unshakeable conviction of a 16 year old that these were the two greatest films of all time. What a pleasure to catch up with them again as an adult and discover that my youthful appreciation for the films was not misplaced (even if they are probably not the two greatest films of all time.)

    Ken Russell really was a genius. Dorothy Tutin's performance in Savage Messiah remains incandescent. Russell's visual imagery is, again and again, uniquely compelling and impressive. No one sees the world the way Ken Russell does. And, again, OMG to Dorothy Tutin.

    A few years ago, shortly before Russell's death, Lincoln Center had a retrospective of his films. I caught many of them. He was present for many of the screenings. What an absolute privilege it was to see The Music Lovers on a big screen again, with Ken Russell in attendance. It was a wonderful thing for him to be able to see them all again, as they were intended to be seen, in a theater, on a big screen, and with an appreciative audience.

    When viewed on the big screen, the moment at Tchaikovsky's party when the children dance in front of the waterfall of fireworks is resplendent. One of my favorite moments ever in film. The Lincoln Center audience broke into applause at that moment. This entire film calls out to be seen in a theater. See it at home, if you have to, but if you ever find it playing in a theater, move heaven and earth to get there.

    I understand that The Music Lovers is uneven, but that's only because it has so many moments of genius.

    1. Hi George
      I agree with you that this film (and most Russell films) really looks spectacular on the big screen. The DVD copy is the crispest I've ever seen it, but his overwhelming images still cry out for large-scale exhibition.
      So terrific that you got to see his films with an appreciative audience and Russell himself in attendance.
      From my own exposure to Russell when I was young, I know well how potent his films can be. The greatest gift his films offer is that they offer an almost entirely new experience when revisited in adulthood.
      Glad to read that so many people have an appreciation for his work.
      He was truly one of a kind. Thanks for sharing sch a nice personal memory of you long appreciation of a director too-often overlooked!

    2. I was also there and to witness the audience's reaction still gives me chills. I was there with Ken and was elated to experience that reception.I would often tell Ken how audiences react to his films in the states. He finally saw it for himself. Our love for one another was epic, platonically speaking.


    3. It's thrilling to know that Russell had the opportunity to be present to see contemporary audiences responding to his movies. The screening of THE MUSIC LOVERS you both reference sounds particularly memorable. His cinematic legacy endures.
      Thank you for visiting this poste and for sharing with us your story of being there to enjoy that special moment with Russell. Love that you were good friends with one of English cinema's most preeminent artists.

  9. Ken,
    I'm so happy you're giving this movie the recognition it deserves. It's not so much that his films stand up after decades--they do--but that they are such singular and heady experiences. There was nothing quite like them then, or now. I'm still on the fence about Crimes of Passion, (although I do like Whore) but almost everything from Women in Love through Valentino (which I just saw again in a terrific Blu Ray) are for the most part, pretty extraordinary.

    I recently got into a debate about Russell with someone who dismisses him. With her arms waving, looking all wild and furious, her arguments were so passionate and extravagant and florid and detailed (she'd seen everything) that I said, "this is why Russell can't be dismissed."

    We did agree on one thing--we both miss seeing Glenda Jackson.

    Thanks, Ken!

    1. Hi Max
      You've nailed it in noting that - whether Russell is one's cup of tea or not - it can't be denied that his films are (for better or worse) uniquely singular visions. The stamp of conformity and convention is so strong on so many films, but you could never say that about Ken Russell.
      I really love his 70s output and can't say I harbor fond memories of much o his work past "Valentino" - but a great deal of that has to do with what I expected of him after "Tommy"...and Ken Russell is not a director one should harbor expectations about.
      I need to revisit his latter career films to see if there really was a decline, or if I was just disappointed that he was turning out "good" films rather than "brilliant" films.

      He certainly can't be dismissed, and we all miss Glenda Jackson! If the Internet can devise a viable property for talents like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, hope the new landscape for filmmaking brings something to Jackson now that (what with a recent piece in EW) it looks like she might be returning to acting.
      Thanks, Max!

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    1. Hi Gregory
      What a beautifully written, loving tribute to an influential, albeit sorely underappreciated director!
      I've known many people (all artists) who feel the same way you do, finding in Russell's work an inspiration to explore the arts (and through that, a sense of self).
      Your comment is a perfect testament to the enduring influence of Russell's work and why filmmakers (good ones) are often more than just their boxoffice value.
      Thanks so much, Gregory!

    2. I have no other intelligible reply to Gregory's comment except, "Wow!" and *hearteyes*

      I wanted to let you know that Glenda Jackson is returning to the stage in King Lear this October, and to congratulate you on the Liz Smith column! I can't think of a nicer person or a more deserving blog to receive such attention and accolades. Please, though, do try to remember us little people now that you've hit the big time... ;)

    3. Hi Lila
      I agree, Gregory's comments are beautifully expressed.
      And yes, I'd heard the news about Jackson returning to the stage! How fantastic is that? Are you a Londoner? I got to see her here in LA when she played Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" - I can only hope her re-entry into acting might lead to film roles.
      And thank you very much re: the Liz Smith mention. Ha! This little people was quite thrilled, I tell you! :-)

    4. As a lifelong ardent Anglophile, I can truthfully state that London is my spiritual home, as it's the place that I have felt more myself than anywhere else, despite being a born-and-bred California girl. In reality, however, I live in the Sierra Nevada foothills, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Pretty much the polar opposite of London, metaphorically if not geographically. ;)

  11. Had to drop back in to share this amazing article from the Flashbak website. Obviously, Ken Russell's eye for interesting compositions developed early. And I love those clothes:

    1. Thanks for including that link Deb.
      I saw those pics a while back and I loved how they evoked those quick cutaway scenes of the Teddy Boys in the "I'm Free" sequence of "Tommy".
      Always so fascinating how the through-line of his work is starting to emerge so many years after his passing.

  12. Nice write-up on this wonderful film by Ken Russell, one of my all-time fave directors. And, I can't believe nobody's yet mentioned THE DEVILS (1971), Russell's best film and one of the greatest films ever made IMO. Love it or hate it, you'll never forget it.

    1. I haven't seen it in years (Happily I got to see it on the big screen), but "The Devils" is another huge favorite. As you say, not for everybody, but an achievement impossible to dismiss even if you don't like it.

  13. Thanks for acknowledging the work of the truest, admittedly unruly, most imaginative and sweetest artist it has been my great good fortune to have loved and married. Great article and comments.

    1. !!!!!
      Hello, Lisi
      I'm humbled and SO pleased to have you read this post and to be so kind as to leave a comment! Ken Russell certainly shaped my early years, and I envy your having had the opportunity to share a life (and no doubt, amazing conversations) with an artist the likes of which we'll probably never see again. Thank you!
      (P.S. - It's nice to hear he was sweet!)

  14. Well, it honestly takes me YEARS to gather the strength to watch a Ken Russell movie. I'm never disappointed with his work, but it is such an assault to the senses that I can't help but avoid them in favor of some future opportunity when I'm more welcoming to the madness.
    Recently we lost Glenda Jackson and after seeing all my favorites of hers, it was time to go through uncharted territory - and the path logically brought me to this one.
    I was kinda jaded and with not too much goodwill for The Music Lovers as the recent trend of biopics in the Hollywood awards circuit has made me bitter towards what has become a trademark of the genre: lazy script, manipulative narrative, uninteresting characters, the obsession about "the actor's transformation into the real person" and blahblahblah.
    I press play and WOW. How could I have forgotten that we were talking about Russell! It took me 5 minutes for me to remember that (for better or worse) his directing voice would never be something less than passionate. I'm just in awe at how he could make a story about someone else feel so deeply personal and unique. He's not a director for hire, he's a storyteller!

    Chamberlain is solid eye candy, and I felt a lot of sympathy for his character, though unlike Glenda he just cannot rise above the lunacy around. I watched it just for her, but even though I surrendered to the beauty of everything else on the screen, I can say that the sparkle in her eyes, this little moments of revelation she shares with the screen, were maybe some of the finest moments of the piece: through them we understand the power of music, the violence of repressed desire, the hunger that cannibalized everybody around Tchaikovsky and ultimately the blooming of the black flower of madness. She had much more time here than in "Women in Love" (surprisingly, as her stay in Tchaikovsky's life didn't last more than 3 months), and as far as range goes, here she stretched her acting muscles beyond what most high profile actresses were used to do by then. Her willingness to undo herself in front of the camera is admirable, and to me as groundbreaking then as Bette Davis was in "Of Human Bondage", decades earlier. 

    I can understand this movie not being well received at the time as I have to admit some of it was disturbing to me. The train scene, with Glenda's naked body bouncing around and the repulsion that it created on Piotr felt so close to home. My boyfriend and I often discuss about the relationship we have with the female body: we so admire its beauty and its strength, but its explicit sexual nudity is so violent to us for some reason. And I think the film made it so easy to feel his terror that most straight viewers were probably confused themselves. It also pleases me to see you discussing the damages of a repressed sexuality, and I think that at least in his late 60s and early 70s films, this is what Ken Russell is willing to discuss the most, and succeeds beautifully, specially when it comes to the marginalized sexualities of his day: homossexuality and feminine sexuality, presented through the many forms of platonic and unfulfilled love. 
    Gosh, how I missed Ken's vibrant, poetic, colorful and menacing style! I can't wait to watch another one of his films...
    ... But as usual, I might need a couple months to recover from this one.

    Hoping you are doing well and happy, Ken! Wishes of joy and health for you and yours!

    1. Hello, João Paulo
      Reading your review of THE MUSIC LOVERS was such a joy! You gave me the marvelous vicarious experience of someone seeing it for the first time. It's always interesting to read what people take note of the first time they see something I've watched for decades.
      Like you, I, too, find movie biographies today hampered by a too-formulaic approach. So it's nice to hear that something Russell was so taken to task for back in the day (deviating from historical accuracy and making his biographical films such personal visions) proves to be a winning factor today.

      Of course, I liked all you noted about Glenda Jackson and her performance. Particularly your awareness of her depth, her emotional nakedness, and the fact that she indeed has what it takes never to be submerged by Russell's brilliant lunacy. (How surprising to learn that the character she plays was in Tchaikovsky's life for such a short time!)
      I can see why he so often wanted to work with her, and why she was wise to turn down roles (like in The Devils) that would have easily typed her as Ken Russell's favorite madwoman.

      You bring up great talking points regarding Russell’s willingness to explore the rarely-referenced aspects of sexuality--Gay, female, homophobic, gynophobic---but daringly, not exploitatively.

      And as for your taking years to get yourself into the mood to tackle Ken Russell, I don't think there's a Ken Russell fan alive who couldn't understand and relate to your needing to brace yourself or be in the proper mood to watch his films. I think the idea that a viewer has to mentally gird their loins before approaching his work would have made Russell very proud.
      It sounds like you approach Russell in an open-minded, receptive way. Willing to go where his stories take you, but thoughtfully and analytically. You’re aware of your responses to his work.
      I appreciate your stopping this post and contributing your insightful essay. Thank you.
      It’s great hearing from you, João Paulo. And I hope you are doing well and are happy and healthy.