One of the films that helped to establish director Ken Russell’s bad boy reputation, The Music Lovers purports to be a biopic about Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain). “Purports,” because you do not have to be an expert on the composer’s life or music to recognize the grotesque distortions inflicted on both in the service of Russell’s over-heated imagination. No one could accuse Russell of being afraid of dealing with the composer’s homosexuality. Quite the opposite, Russell took full advantage of the freedoms filmmakers enjoyed in the early ’70s to err on the side of suggesting that there was little in Tchaikovsky’s life but his sexuality.
Yes, Tchaikovsky was gay and yes, he entered a disastrous marriage as a cover, but that is about the only concession to fact that Russell feels obliged to make. It is probably the only fact that interests him. The question raised by all of Russell’s biographical films is how much license any artist should be given when dealing with the lives of real people? Change the character names in The Music Lovers and it feels more like hysterical gibberish than a serious exploration of psychology or creativity. Doing so would at least enable us to attribute the film’s hot-house atmosphere to artistic license without worrying about the subjects.
Of course, removing the references to Tchaikovsky (or any of the other victims of Russell’s method) also removes the pretense of having something to say beyond the filmmaker’s lurid projections. The Music Lovers would become nothing but flaming, wildly extravagant excess in the service of often striking incidents that barely hold together, and would therefore be of questionable purpose. Put simply, the film evades a central issue: is this about Tchaikovsky, or about Russell? If the former, it seems to warrant at least a degree of respect for the subject. If it is just personal indulgence, the film verges on the libelous.
To ask whether Chamberlain is well cast, or suggest that Glenda Jackson’s performance as his nymphomaniacal wife Nina is grotesquely over wrought is to miss the point. No actor could excel under the circumstances because the film isn’t about anything other than Russell’s desire to whoop things up as outrageously as he can. The results aren’t bad, exactly; the film is most distinctive at its febrile heights, and for all the misgivings Russell’s approach may arouse, there is no denying his gift for plumbing the depths of warped indulgence.
But where does that leave Tchaikovsky? Or us, for that matter? I applaud imaginative, daring work, but still feel that The Music Lovers lacks a point of view beyond distorting frenzy. Russell cared about Tchaikovsky only to the extent the composer’s name guaranteed an audience for the director’s fantasies. Russell had no real attitude toward any of his subjects beyond their capacity for hyperbole. The results, brilliant in their way as they could be, are little better than a talented, anal-expulsive child’s temper tantrums.