Ken Russell’s 'The Music Lovers' (1970): The purest expression of Opera ever committed to celluloid

By Vivaan Shah

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are hear as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

                                            -MATTHEW ARNOLD
I have been searching for Ken Russell’s 1970 film about Tchaikovsky‘The Music Lovers’for the longest time. Very few DVDs of it exist, I even tried ordering one of them from but it was too expensive. I finally found it on a streaming site called bmovies and although I am not a proponent of online viewing, I found myself compelled to watch it then and there.

Since it was reviled and pretty unanimously despised by critics on its release, history has not been particularly kind to the film, and it has silently faded into obscurity, neglected for reassessment. In some circles it is considered a garish private fantasy, a shamefully unfaithful retelling of Tchaikovsky’s life, and among Russell fanatics, one of his best works but not nearly as discussed and dissected as his more notable films such as ‘The Devils’ and ‘Women in Love’. In fact Pauline Kael even went so far as to say, ‘You really feel like driving a stake through the heart of the man that made that film.’ It is understandable to see why she felt that way, but yet equally baffling considering she championed the similarly visceral works of Sam Peckinpah (easily the film maker closest to Russell in terms of sheer Dionysian mania), Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. But what set Russell apart from his American counter parts was his British boisterousness, his sense of the theatrical, his visual wit, his unhinged transgressions and his lucid visions that seemed to have crept right out of Goya’s or Francis Bacon’s more demonic paintings. His technique is as hyper kinetic and frenzied as Scorsese’s, as is his use of music, his use of slow motion rivals that of Peckinpah, his visual prose is as floral as Fellini’s, and his wicked sense of humour and the underlying tension in scenes of the mundane can compete only with a Kubrick. In fact the film that can be most closely compared with this one is 2001: A Space Odyssey in its near wordless design. It plays almost like a silent film in parts, the camera swaying melodically to the strains of Swan Lake, or that vivid opening scene scored entirely like a aria to ‘The Dance of the Clowns’. There is no sense in trying to describe this film in terms of plot, suffice to say that it is a love story between a nymphomaniac and a homosexual, which is apparently the way Russell pitched it to Harry Saltzman, the producer of his previous film Women in Love. A love quadrangle of dizzying rythms and a tone poem that tranquilizes Keats’ conceptions of the self right out into the flesh, in terms of the ecclesiastical- ‘ecstasis’. The image of a moving train rocking Glenda Jackson back and forth in a coital frenzy is wound up with a Wagnerian nightmarishness.

Russell’s preoccupation with Catholicism isn’t brought under the microscope here, as it would be in his all his subsequent works, instead he chose to elaborate and expand from Women in Love on the pastoral imagery of most 19th Century Romanticism. The sense of yearning is absolute, almost sublime, as is the nostalgia without nausea in the Proustian tradition. The sense that the past exists in the present, and the psychological landscape of Tchaikovsky that resulted in his music. Roger Ebert criticized this film on the grounds that it assumed most works of artistic inspiration were born out of the folly of the passing moment, a beautiful sunset, a thunderstorm, the roar of a canon, instead of through honest toil and hard rigour. Russell would go on to correct this in his film about the sculptor Henri-Gaudier Breszka ‘Savage Messiah’ which features a scene of the eponymous sculptor chiselling away at a slab of stone till the wee hours of the night while relating the story of a little bird. ‘The rent never sleeps’ Dorothy Tuttin’s character asserts while working her fingers to the bone. That art comes into existence through sheer hard work is not something that was alien to Russell, he wasn’t that much of a Romanticist. He perhaps belonged more to the Baroque Gothic tradition as is apparent in his hallucinatory montage of the 1812 overture which charts in an almost vaudeville like comic fashion the bastardizing influence money can have on art. Tchaikovsky ends up as a conductor deliriously waving his magic wand atop the Kremlin while his brother dutifully collects the fateful notes blowing the wind. The film proposes the question at what cost? Glenda Jackson, essaying his neglected wife in what is possibly her finest performance, ends up in a female mental asylum surrounded my haggard, leprous, deformed, geriatric, gargoyled, almost mutant women. That particular scene is startlingly shocking and the stuff that nightmares are made of. The film goes over to an almost other realm of disturbing with that sequence.

Glenda Jackson’s voice resonates the deepest fibre of the material in her harrowing turn as Tchaikovsky’s neglected wife. The emotional sophistication of her performance and the sexual hysteria that resides within it supply the film with some of its most psychosomatically charged imagery. The scene in which she wails ‘Don’t I live?’ in torment, is almost too difficult to watch because of the emotional violence of it.

The film is probably the purest expression of Opera ever committed to celluloid. It swells and swoons, roars, crashes, thunders, writhes, gyrates in agonized contortions and literally explodes towards the end. It’s almost as if Russell’s films have so much energy that cinema cannot contain them. It’s no surprise that he was considered by the major studios to be the most dangerously eccentric film maker of all time, what they perhaps failed to realize is that he was also the most poetic. He made films on the lives of all kinds of classical composers from Delius to Debussy, to Richard Wagner to Gustav Mahler but for me this one stands out as the most cinematic. Never before had he been afforded this kind of scale, this grandeur and this vitality. After Tommy and The Devils for me this is possibly his best film, and one of the most cathartic cinema watching experiences I have ever encountered. 

About Author - 

Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St.Stephen's College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels. This is the first time he has ever written about a film.

The Music Lovers - Theatrical Trailer (YouTube)

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!

People who liked this also liked...
Share on Google Plus


Post a Comment

Thanks for sharing for valuable opinion. We would be delighted to have you back.