wed 21/04/2021

DVD: The Music Lovers | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Music Lovers

DVD: The Music Lovers

Ken Russell's mendacious Tchaikovsky 'biopic' is impossible to condemn

Ken Russell's 'The Music lovers': 'A riotously joyous celebration of the filmic medium and all it can do'

There are many ways to get to the truth. One of the best ways is to ignore the truth. That seems to be the mantra of Ken Russell's colourfully mendacious portrait of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, receiving its long-awaited DVD release.

There are many ways to get to the truth. One of the best ways is to ignore the truth. That seems to be the mantra of Ken Russell's colourfully mendacious portrait of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, receiving its long-awaited DVD release. The script (by a young Melvyn Bragg) is breathless and ludicrous and yields too swiftly and too often to the hysterical - to carpet-clawing madness, glass-smashing fury and shirt-tearing lust - as it follows an improbably manic and louche Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his struggles to juggle the obsessive love of the women and men around him. Yet it is a film impossible to condemn.

The Music Lovers is so beautifully shot (Douglas Slocombe), so cleverly choreographed (Terry Gilbert), so conscientiously art-directed (Natasha Kroll), gets so often to such an unbearably potent truth (if not the truth) and argues so good-naturedly and tenderly for the most sweet-heartedly sentimental gloss on Tchaikovsky's music that I was intermittently swept clean off my feet and sent out into the night with goosebumps.

From the long opening tracking shot, cranes, dollies, camera panning, sweeping our eyes through a kaleidoscopic Russian winter fair, to the thrillingly jangly troika-mounted view, from the rich glimpses of the famous Russian birch forests (delivered with the most extraordinary depth of field), to the sweltering scenes of harvested wheat fields, the camerawork immediately announces itself as the virtuosic star of the movie.

Never has a film so faithfully followed the vertiginous tumbling and soaring, bacchanalian lunging and swinging, spirited swooping and sliding of a soundtrack (unusually exciting playing of Tchaikovsky's greatest hits from André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra). The camera's drunken pitching during Chamberlain's convincingly stormy pianism forces you to become at one with Tchaikovsky's music. But to what extent the rest of the film allows you to become at one with Tchaikovsky's real life is highly debatable.

The basic outline is not entirely wrong (his First Concerto was rejected by Nikolai Rubinstein; his failure of a marriage did provoke a crisis; he and his mother did die of cholera and his mother's death did affect him very much). But key elements (the vileness of Rubinstein, the exploitative behaviour of brother Modest, the asylum-confined end of his wife Antonina Miliukova, his suicide, his mania, his problems with his homosexuality) are exaggerated or invented.

The lurid script means none of the acting could ever be described as good. But in Russell's undeniably inventive, madly symbolic, gloriously kinetic set pieces, when the likes of Glenda Jackson (the wife) are muzzled by the music and thrown through a sky of falling multicoloured streamers or rattle naked on the floor of a train carriage, the prosaics of actorly good taste and biographical fidelity begin to matter little in the face of such a riotously joyous celebration of the filmic medium and all it can do.

 

The first musical sequence of Ken Russell's The Music Lovers (1970)

The lurid script means none of the acting could ever be described as good

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