Color, 1971, 123 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Christopher Gable, Max Adrian, Izabella Telezynska, Kenneth Colley, Sabina Maydelle, Bruce Robinson
BFI (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Final Cut Entertainment (DVD) (UK R2 PAL), MGM (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC), Bel Air Classiques (DVD) (France R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Though he had made his name on The Music LoversBritish television with a string of visually striking and The Music Loversaudacious classical composer biographies, it wasn't until the award-winning success of Women in Love that director Ken Russell got to continue that streak for the big screen. The result was The Music Lovers (or as the actual title reads, Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers), an extravagant and sometimes shocking depiction of the creative process that sows the seeds for many of his works to come -- especially The Devils and The Boy Friend, both of which came out later the same year as this one(!) and share numerous visual ideas and cast members. Critics at the time who had praised Russell for his D.H. Lawrence adaptation were far less kind with this film, using terms that would crop up throughout the filmmaker's career like "excessive," "bad taste," and "self-indulgent." However, time once again proved to be on Russell's side as this film remains a crucial work in his filmography as well as a stunningly shot and edited experience whose influence would be felt well into the age of music videos.

Renowned Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Chamberlain) has been cavorting a little too publicly with his boyfriend, Count Anton Chiluvsky (Russell mascot Gable), with pressure mounting for him to put on a more acceptable image to go with his growing celebrity. He has his The Music Loversnaysayers, particularly the acidic Nikolai Rubinstein (Adrian), while his main source of support is his devoted sister, Sasha (Maydelle). The Music LoversMeanwhile the borderline delusional Nina (Jackson), who fixates on famous people and writes them rapturous letters, becomes fixated on Tchaikovsky as her latest obsession. Their eventual meeting convinces Tchaikovsky that she could be the right person to put her personal life on course, but their wedding leads to a disastrous train ride that night and an emotionally tormented marriage. He soon neglects her in favor of the patronage of the wealthy admirer Madame Nadezhda von Meck (Telezynska) who allows him to live and write on her sprawling property as long as they never meet, and in turn he promises to dedicate everything he writes to her. However, Tchaikovsky's inner torment and self-destructive streak (present since his childhood trauma seeing his mother's harrowing death from cholera) ensure that his daily life can never reach the heights of his glorious compositions.

The whirling opening five minutes of this film, in which the camera never stops still for a second as we rapidly meet most of the players in our story in one snowy location, should tip viewers off immediately that this is Russell firing on all cylinders in the same fashion as his later composer biopics, Mahler and the very divisive Lisztomania. What separates this one from its peers is the pair of exceptional lead performances, with a vulnerable and highly sympathetic Chamberlain working wonders in one of his best roles while the fiery Jackson steals every second she's in front of the camera. The Music LoversThe film's ornate production design (which rivals the heights of Luchino Visconti) and lush stereo sound mix are often at odds with the grotesque visuals on The Music Loversdisplay, including a madhouse depiction that only Russell could execute. Weirdly, this film never seems to be discussed in the wave of early '70s gay-themed movies that appeared in the wake of William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band in 1970 (including Something for Everyone, Fortune and Men's Eyes, Villain, and Sunday Bloody Sunday); that's despite the fact that, apart from the conniving Chiluvsky character, it's a fairly compassionate portrayal of the hazards of denying one's true self and trying to force a lifestyle that's completely incompatible. The fact that Chamberlain himself came out of the closet decades later (and was already the subject of many rumors) adds quite a bit of subtext here, unavoidably, in much the same way that Rock Hudson's anguish in Seconds hits alarmingly close to home. The lack of sexuality in the film may account for some of that (nothing here is as homoerotic or carnal as the legendary wrestling scene in Women in Love), but it's still exceptionally strong stuff at times including Jackson's unabashed nude train scene that would have gotten this film slapped with an X rating if it weren't for the classical music veneer. The film also boasts some of Russell's gloriously flamboyant sequences including that bullet-paced opening and the unforgettable "1812 Overture" sequence that had more than a few (including regular Russell haters Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael) clutching their pearls in horror.

For many years The Music Lovers was a difficult film to see outside of the occasional, heavily butchered TV airing. Cropped The Music LoversVHS versions eventually The Music Loversturned up in the U.K. in 1988 and the U.S. in 1991, at least offering a chance to finally see it uncensored, followed by a welcome letterboxed laserdisc from MGM/UA in 1993 which also added the theatrical trailer. After that it vanished again for a long time until an MOD DVD from MGM in the U.S. in 2011 followed by pressed discs in the U.K. and France, all taken from the same solid master. It wasn't until 2024 that we finally got an official Blu-ray release courtesy of the BFI in the U.K., featuring a gorgeous presentation from an HD master supplied by MGM that accurately represents the look of the original theatrical prints including some crazy shades of red and blue. English audio options are provided in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo with optional English SDH subtitles; the original theatrical stereo mix as heard on the second option was always a strong one with lots of presence and active channel separation, so you're really fine either way as the tracks aren't substantially different. A new audio commentary by Matthew Melia is thorough and engaging as it covers all the necessary bases from the potential casting of Alan Bates to the notable music cues and the various historical details sprinkled throughout, not to mention its relationship to the Russell projects just before and after it. Another audio option is The Guardian Interview: Melvyn Bragg, a 76-minute interview from 1988 with the actor, author, and interviewer having a casual conversation about his extensive career with Ronald Harwood at London's National Film Theatre. If you're an English pop culture junkie, it's a feast of a listen with stories about pretty much every art form around. "It Runs in the Family" (20m37s) features Russell's son, Alexander Verney-Elliott, chatting about his own childhood appearance in the film and his memories of his father at work, while 2007's "Charlotte Bronte Enters the Big Brother House" (16m3s) is a VHS production with Russell mounting a typically idiosyncratic "ballet for young people" ostensibly based on Jane Eyre and the life of its author. "Galina Ulanova in Swan Lake" (4m17s) is a beautiful little 1940 preservation of the famed ballerina performing Tchaikovsky's ballet, while "Musical Highlights from USSR Today" (10m20s) compiles highlights from three of the Soviet newsreels pertaining to Tchaikovsky showing performances and dances to his music along with a look at the house where he spent his final years. Also included are a collection of Shirley Russell's costume designs (2m) and the theatrical trailer. It's also worth noting that Russell and Chamberlain appeared in person for a terrific Q&A at a 2010 screening of the film at the Aero Theater in L.A., though a video of that has yet to be released to the public. The first pressing of the disc comes with an illustrated booklet featuring new essays by Melia and Caroline Langhorst plus contributions from Alexander Verney-Elliott and Lisi Russell.

BFI (Blu-ray)

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Final Cut (DVD)

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Reviewed on June 18, 2024