Relative to British director Ken Russell’s many other biopics about troubled artists, The Music Lovers falls somewhere between the grounded darkness of Savage Messiah (1972) and the vulgar excess of Mahler (1974)—never mind the deranged Lisztomania (1975), which exists in a universe all its own. Offering a florid take on the life of Russian composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers has several long passages that are both lyrical and rational, cleverly dramatizing the way artists use their work to speak to the people in their lives as well as to society in general. But then, as happens with depressing frequency throughout Russell’s career, the director’s lower instincts take control, dragging The Music Lovers into psychosexual ugliness.
Set in Russia during the second half of the 19th century, The Music Lovers tracks Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) over many years. At the beginning of the picture, he works as a music teacher while periodically performing original compositions that only a few people appreciate, so in one early sequence, Russell places significant characters in the audience of a recital, then uses insert scenes to depict how each person reacts to Tchaikovsky’s melodies. Eventually, key relationships take shape. Tchaikovsky marries a fan, the emotionally unstable Antonia (Glenda Jackson), even though he’s gay. Concurrently, the wealthy Nadezhda (Izabella Telezynksa) becomes Tchaikovsky’s patron on the condition they never meet. Predictably, these dynamics prove untenable. As Antonia descends into insanity, Tchaikovsky’s refusal to sleep with her becomes a wedge in their combative relationship. Meanwhile, Nadezhda suffers from unrequited love, lusting for the man whom she financially supports but from whom she remains distant. It’s all very twisted, the situation made even more fraught by Tchaikovsky’s conflicted feelings about his sexuality, by the danger to his status if his gay liaisons become public knowledge, and by trauma originating with his mother’s death from cholera.
Some scenes in The Music Lovers are so lovely that it’s a shame Russell couldn’t control his impulses—a sequence of people dressed in white as they dance among birch trees in a snowy forest is mesmerizing, and it’s not the only passage with real visual splendor. During the film’s best moments, Russell creates shots that time perfectly with Tchaikovsky’s music, thus conjuring an intoxicating form of heightened reality. And then he goes wild. In one of the film’s crudest moments, a feverish Antonia offers herself to Tchaikovsky while they ride on a rocking train, so Russell cuts back and forth between closeups of Jackson’s nether regions and reaction shots of Chamberlain looking close to nausea. It’s a degrading moment for everyone involved, not least the audience. Jackson easily steals the picture with her unbridled performance, though her powerful work reveals, by comparison, the limitations in Chamberlain’s stilted acting. In a way, that contrast epitomizes the problem with The Music Lovers—the movie periodically loses Tchaikovsky because of the lurid focus on the troubled women in his life.
The Music Lovers: FUNKY