When Ken Russell, white hot from the critical and commercial success of 'Women In Love', first pitched the idea of a film about Tchaikovsky, the Hollywood money men were less than impressed - until Ken told them it was about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac. The cheques books came out immediately.
'The Music Lovers' picks up on where Russell left off with his films for the BBC: it's basically an impressionistic visual essay on Tchaikovsky's music with a few biographical details thrown in for good measure. It's loud, sumptuous, exuberant, chaotic, expensive, cinematic and has a star cast of reliable actors who keep the whole enterprise from spinning out of control.
Richard Chamberlain plays Pytor Illych, and does a decent if unspectacular job. We don't really believe that he could write the 1812 Overture, of course, any more than we could believe Cornel Wilde as Chopin or Dirk Bogarde as Liszt, but Chamberlain at least looks the part when he plays the piano. An extra retrospective frisson is added to his performance by the fact that Tchaikovsky was, of course, gay, and always aware that it could ruin him at any time: a dilemma that hearthrob Chamberlain (who was eventually 'outed' in 1995) would have been horribly familiar with.
Glenda Jackson plays Nina, an unbalanced and promiscuous young woman who sets her rather wonky sights on the great composer and, to her surprise, very quickly becomes his wife, an unwitting victim of his desire to 'change' and to have a wife and family of his own. It's a bad idea, of course: he can't consumate the marriage and the rejection drives Nina to other lovers, and then out of her mind. Tchaikovsky achieves fame, then apparently commits suicide at the height of his powers (by insisting on drinking unboiled water in a cholera zone); Nina ends up as the asylum shag bag.
|Nina the Schemer.|
|Crazy as a nuthouse bike.|
Glenda Jackson is brilliant as Nina, manipulative and naive, her characterisation permanently tinted with incipient mental illness. Her legendary lack of vanity comes in handy here - Nina is not a glamorous role, and she finds herself ill used and looking awful in many of her scenes. I'd like to say that her fate in the film was fictionalised for the screen, but sadly it's all true, although she actually went into a mental hospital long after her husband's death, so could not have inspired his 'Pathetique' symphony.
|Nina's 'day job'.|
|An uncomfortable situation in cramped conditions.|
'The Music Lovers' tells you pretty much all the casual observer needs to know about its subject matter, and although there's a bit of sex and bad behaviour Russell is actually pretty restrained here, perhaps mindful of not immediately alienating his new Hollywood paymasters too much. There are long scenes simply set to Tchaikovsky's work that are very lyrical and beautifully put together but don't quite display the wilder flights of imagination that would distinguish / disfigure his later work. That said, it's not all wheat fields and peasant girls, with glimpses of the 'real' unfettered Russell occasionally peeking through: the overwrought and punishing setpiece on the night train to Moscow (a honeymooning Peter and Nina get drunk and out of control, see above) and the short but grotesque scenes set in Nina's asylum that prefigure the hysteria in the convent in his next film 'The Devils'.
|Tchaikovsky is haunted by his Mum's death - from cholera.|
|A small domestic.|
These somewhat outre inclusions should have tipped off the studio executives to what their new pet eccentric was really capable of but, whilst the money was flowing in, they decided to turn a blind eye to it, a decision they would shortly live to regret: Ken was never a man to be trusted to be good, bless him, and he needed very little encouragement to get quickly and irrevocably out of hand. 'The Devils' and 'Savage Messiah' and, God help us, ''Lisztomania' were just around the corner...