Our current Movie of the Month, 1971’s The Music Lovers, is a biopic of 19th Century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from this over-the-top distortion of his life, which mostly fixates on his volatile marriage to a fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. A closeted homosexual, Tchaikovsky pursues a traditional marriage with the manic, insatiable woman to the detriment of his own sanity, inviting director Ken Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares to spill onto the screen in spectacular ways that match the explosive piano jolts of Tchaikovsky’s music. His violent compositions & barely closeted homosexuality land him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, meaning the film is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.
Ken Russell was the master of turning real-life, historical artist’s lives into fodder for his own auteurist idiosyncrasies, from Lord Byron in Gothic to Franz Liszt in Lisztomania to Oscar Wilde in Salome’s Last Dance (which is what originally inspired me to track down The Music Lovers in a previous Movie of the Month cycle). He did not own a total monopoly on the practice, though. There are plenty of other directors who used loose-with-the-facts biopics of famous composers as inspiration for over-the-top, high-style pictures with little historical connection to those musicians’ lives. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more composer biopics gone wild.
Miloš Forman’s libertine biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart doesn’t quite match the unhinged, sweaty mania of Ken Russell’s composer “biographies”, but it’s likely the closest you can get and still win a Best Picture Oscar. Amadeus is wonderfully, extravagantly lewd, especially for a mainstream production. It characterizes the composer as a shrill, ridiculous fop whose fame at an early age stunted his emotional maturity — like so many fallen Disney Channel stars. According to its stats on Mozart’s child-celebrity accomplishments, he had composed his first concerto by the age of 4, his first symphony by 7, and his first opera by 12. It is not a birth-to-death biopic, though, so we do not see these adolescent accomplishments. Instead, Forman delivers a character study of Mozart as a fully grown, immature lush whose undisputed musical genius does nothing to impede his love of sex, booze, and fart jokes. He drinks himself into total delirium just like Tchaikovsky does in The Music Lovers, but for most of the picture he’s more of a hedonistic party boy than he is a self-hating sad sack.
While Amadeus indulges in the same “ecstatic truth” approach to historical storytelling as Ken Russell’s comparable biopics, it never totally detaches from reality in any decisive way. Mozart’s bifurcated nature as a musical genius and a ludicrous fop is solidly grounded in a decades-long rivalry with his fellow composer Antonio Salieri, who cannot stand that his professional competition is a drunken jester whose music is “The Voice of God.” That rivalry is fictional, but it’s not exactly a Ken Russell-style break from reality. It does offer the film a bitter source of comedy, though, especially as Salieri’s frustration with Mozart’s ease in exquisite compositions starts to resemble Frank Grimes’s one-sided rivalry with the clueless Homer Simpson. Forman has self-indulgent fun with Mozart’s life & music—historical truth be damned—which is the core tenant of all of Russell’s own biopics. Lisztomania never had a chance at winning a Best Picture Oscar, so we might as well celebrate the closest the industry would ever get to that kind of anomaly.
Immortal Beloved (1994)
Candyman & Paperhouse director Bernard Rose attempted his own Ken Russell style biopic in Immortal Beloved, which portrays Ludwig van Beethoven as a temperamental rock star who took his anger over his own hearing loss out on the world at large. Immortal Beloved delivers even less feverish Ken Russell theatrics than Amadeus, despite the surrealism of Rose’s iconic horror films. It’s a little too restrained to match the fantastical heights of The Music Lovers or Amadeus, but it’s still a relatively fun, volatile period drama on its own terms. That’s because it fully commits to the mystery genre structure that Amadeus only toys with as a convenient launching pad. At the start of Amadeus, Salieri claims he murdered Mozart, but the 161min flashback that follows proves that confession to be figurative (and, again, fictional). For his part, Bernard Rose fixates on a line in Beethoven’s actual last will & testament that refers to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved” that historians have never successfully identified. Rose claims his own research and resulting Citizen Kane-inspired screenplay conclusively identified this Immortal Beloved that has been so elusive to Beethoven biographers for centuries. That claim, of course, is insane, but it’s the exact kind of unhinged energy directors need to bring to their projects if they plan to outshine Ken Russell in any way.
Unfortunately, Immortal Beloved also participates in the lowliest form of art: the Gary Oldman acting showcase. Oldman plays Beethoven as a tortured creative genius and an excuse to don some dinner theatre old-age stage makeup. Acting! At least the movie’s adherence to Citizen Kane story structure allows for many points of view on Beethoven’s violent abuses. Enough of his acquaintances report that the composer was “a terrible man” & “a scoundrel” that there’s nothing cool or romantic about watching him trash hotel rooms like a geriatric rockstar or cruelly insult the people who work to keep his life afloat. Hanging out with a drinking, farting Mozart in Amadeus is a lot more fun, but there’s enough mysterious intrigue & proto-Sound of Metal dramatics in Rose’s take on Beethoven to make Immortal Beloved worth a look. Besides, Rose’s conviction that he solved the case by processing it through mainstream screenwriting conventions is just objectively hilarious.
Paganini Horror (1989)
Both Amadeus & Immortal Beloved play around with the biographical details of their respective composers to up their own entertainment value, but neither can claim to go as off-script as the cheap-o Italo slasher Paganini Horror. There were real-life rumors Antonio Salieri maintained a bitter rivalry with Mozart, even if those rumors have been proven false by historians. Beethoven’s final will did refer to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved”, even if Rose’s claims to having uncovered that enigma’s identity are ludicrous. Luigi “Star Crash” Cozzi’s Paganini Horror is working with even an even flimsier scrap of historical inspiration than either of those pictures, though. Apparently, Niccolò Paganini was such a virtuoso violinist that it was rumored he sold his soul to Satan for the talent, earning him the nickname “The Devil’s Violinist”. That’s all the real-world inspiration Cozzi needs to resurrect Paganini’s ghost on the set of a “Thriller” rip-off music video shoot, modernizing his musical devilry in the most direct, literal way possible. Now, there’s a Ken Russell-style disregard for the respectability of real-world logic & historical fact.
Paganini Horror is basically off-brand metalsploitation, trading in the genre’s hair metal soundtrack for classical compositions and cornball 80s pop. While filming a promotional “video clip” for their new single (a modernized recording of a lost, cursed, Paganini composition, of course), an all-girl rock band accidentally summons Paganini’s ghost, who hunts them one-by-one with a novelty violin knife. They trade myths about Paganini’s signature on a literal contract with Satan, or how the musician used his wife’s intestines as strings, and you can still hear “the screams of his poor bride” today. We don’t get to see much of that, though. We get loopy music video clips & dream sequences where the devil’s violinist chases buxom new wavers around an abandoned castle. Apparently, the production couldn’t land the full financing needed to stage all of the gore gags in the original script (co-written by Daria Nicolodi as a mockbuster version of a Klaus Kinski Paganini movie that never materialized), so they replaced the gnarlier details of those kills with more loopy dream sequences. It’s a fun, detached-from-reality schlock novelty as a result, never quite reaching the euphoric highs of a Ken Russell art film but often reaching for the weirdest indulgences possible in a movie about a real-life historical figure, fictionalized beyond recognition.