Movie of the Month: The Music Lovers (1971)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch The Music Lovers (1971).

Brandon: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is awful to watch. Daily doomscrolls of the latest atrocity footage from Ukraine have been a weight on our hearts & stomachs for months, so it’s understandable that Westerners distanced from the conflict feel the urge to do something to help, however small.  People are being weird about it, though.  Recalling the xenophobic “freedom fries” days of post-9/11 America, there has been a recent online push for “cultural boycotts” of all things Russian, often punishing the lives & work of Russian people for the actions of the Russian government.  It’s a modern Red Scare reboot that has US bar owners dumping Stoli vodka down the drain and EA Sports removing digital representations of Russian teams from their video games – symbolic gestures that do nothing to ease the suffering of Ukrainian people but do a lot to fan the flames of Slavophobia. 

The strangest example of these cultural boycotts I’ve seen in the past couple months was from, of course, a rando on Twitter.  In response to the tweet “banning all things russian is so bizarre and it will definitely trigger an increase in xenophbia against russian (and slav) immigrants”, the rando replied “Don’t think that matters now , I can’t even listen to Tchaikovsky without feeling sick”.  That is obviously not the most unhinged exchange I’ve seen on that platform, but it’s still an odd sentiment.  It’s also one that’s been echoed in real-world actions, with multiple philharmonic orchestras around the globe removing Tchaikovsky symphonies from their programmes.  I really only know two things about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s place in Russian history: he was disregarded by contemporaries for not being nationalist enough in his music (embracing influence from Western outsiders in his compositions), and his cultural importance is still often downplayed by Russian musicologists because he was homosexual.  I’m not sure how boycotting a dead, gay Russian iconoclast is supposed to ease the suffering of modern Ukrainians, but I also was never clear on how a “freedom fries” culinary rebrand was supposed to protest France’s opposition to our own government’s invasion of Iraq twenty idiotic years ago.

To be fair, I’m missing a lot of cultural context here, since most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from Ken Russell’s over-the-top, loose-with-the-facts biopic The Music Lovers (starring Richard Chamberlain as the 19th Century composer).  The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova (played by Glenda Jackson), whom Russell portrays as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife, as he is anchored to the extreme right end of the Kinsey Scale, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist throughout the film. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, and his wealthy stalker/patron. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship with a longtime male lover reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the climactic sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is still alive & well in the 2020s, so it’s unlikely that a cultural boycott on Tchaikovsky’s music is an effective way to stick it to Putin & The Kremlin.  There’s something genuinely heartbreaking in The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky’s urge to fit in with heteronormative society by pursuing “spiritual relationships” with women in search of “marriage without a wife,” even as Russell finds lewd, lurid joy in the conflict.  Tchaikovsky’s violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, and I’m not convinced he would’ve had any easier of a time living & working as a gay man in the country’s modern era – especially considering the legal troubles of contemporary iconoclastic artists like Leto director Kirill Serebrennikov (who incidentally has a movie titled Tchaikovsky’s Wife premiering at this year’s Cannes) and the punk band Pussy Riot.  Then again, Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s likely foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Hanna, how useful or trustworthy do you think The Music Lovers is as a historical biography of Tchaikovsky?  Do you feel like you learned anything about his place in Russian culture from the movie, or do you think it excels more as an excuse for Russell to indulge his own volatile creative impulses?

Hanna: Per Roger Ebert, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible … as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times”. Truthfully, I really didn’t know anything about Tchaikovsky before watching The Music Lovers, and I was doubtful that any part of the film could serve as a remotely reliable biography until after following up on some of the key points online. I think that Ebert is technically correct in his assessment of the film, but I don’t care! It was a pure Russell festival of opulent indulgence, and I was totally into it.

I read up a little bit on Tchaikovsky immediately after returning from Brandon’s watch party (emphasis on “a little bit”), and from what I could glean, the skeleton bolstering The Music Lovers is more or less accurate (e.g., his very compelling patron relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, his disastrous relationship with Antonina, the trauma of his mother’s death from cholera). However, Russell has draped this skeleton in an absolutely thrilling, garish, psychosexual drama. I’m not sure that I learned anything about Russia from this movie, and I don’t think I ever felt a strong “Russian” identity in the film. In fact, I had to continuously remind myself throughout the movie that the film was based in Russia as the actors accosted each other in British accents. The Music Lovers also mostly focuses Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage to Antonina and the period of creative stagnation and isolation that followed, so I always felt like it was more concerned with Tchaikovsky’s mental landscape than anything else; I never had much of a sense of the Russian society surrounding Tchaikovsky during the middle stretch of the movie, except maybe during the Swan Lake performance, where he’s awkwardly wedged between his wife and Count Chiluvsky, surrounded on all sides by members of the Russian art crowd. I’m a passive fan of Tchaikovsky’s music so I had a vested interest in learning about his life, but I found myself more drawn to the hazy dream and nightmare spaces that Russell conjured than the historical, cultural, or objective details of Tchaikovsky’s life. I’m thinking especially of Tchaikovsky’s long stay in von Meck’s “small” cottage, which was an especially evocative, mist-laden affair detailing a distant queerness and eroticism that transcended the historical moment (although it had all the dressings of the period, which were an absolute pleasure to behold). The train car (pure nightmare!) and Tchaikovsky’s apartment (so lush! so pink!) are equally hard to leave behind. At the same time, his mental landscape was, of course, directly informed by the politics of his time, so it’s impossible to separate them completely.

Boomer, I know you’re a fan of Russell’s comingling of high-falutin sensibilities and gaudy mayhem. Personally, The Music Lovers scratched that itch perfectly, and delivered some genuinely moving human moments along with it. How does this stack up for you in the Ken Russell canon?

Boomer: Oh no! Reports of my knowledge of Ken Russell movies are greatly exaggerated! As an adult, I’ve only seen Altered States many times and Salome’s Last Dance the once, although I have extremely vivid memories of Lair of the White Worm during HBO’s free preview weekend when I was far, far too young for it. Within my limited experience (as a viewer and hearing Brandon talk about them on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast), however, I can confirm that his films are generally disinterested in attempting to adhere to the confines of realism. It’s rare, even among the most talented directors, for the creator to forsake the concept that the camera is objective or an observer and instead make something that attempts to capture the subjectivity of feelings. It’s not real, surreal, or hyperreal: it is simply unreal, but is somehow universal as a result. Altered States has this as its text: that the altered, uh, states of human consciousness are just as real as the one we “agree” is reality. In Salome, it’s all about the play within the film; both are fiction, but the viewer is expected to preferentially conceptualize one as “reality.” In the former, this is done for horror, in the latter it is done for comedy, and in The Music Lovers, it’s done for transcendence. 

During the first scene in which Tchaikovsky performs at the piano, I was absolutely captivated by its minimal dialogue and the flights of fancy and fantasy that the various listeners feel as they attend. Similarly, music critic Deems Taylor describes how Fantasia begins with impressions of the orchestra and then moves into more abstract concepts as the music “suggest[s] other things to your imagination,” and that’s often the draw of classical music and the live performances thereof, at least for me. I go into our Movies of the Month with as little foreknowledge as possible, and when it comes to films that have a minimal pop culture footprint (like this one, although it certainly deserves better), that means that I go into these completely blind. Starting at the nine minute mark, it indulges in twelve minutes of people attending a performance and the vision of what the music means to each of them, and although each imagines a different scene, all of them are suffused with an almost palpable yearning, a longing for the romance of familiarity and simplicity, of excitement and newness, and of a time irretrievable. Maybe I’m just dense, but I hadn’t even put together at that point that our lead was Tchaikovsky. (The title card, which reads Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, is both completely accurate and somewhat impenetrable, on purpose).  I would have been perfectly satisfied if the whole film had simply been people listening to Tchaikovsky compositions and then having rapturous daydreams. That it leaves that conservatory hall and surveys much larger sections of the lives of others is icing on the cake. 

Britnee, every time I engage with a text that’s about a creator—a movie about a playwright, a book about a painter, a comic about an illustrator—there’s a little light that goes off in my head that tells me to look for the way in which the person creating that text is commenting upon the act or process of creation. Not every work that meets that criteria is necessarily being used by the author to talk about their work or the work of others, but it’s a pretty common rhetorical and narrative device. For me, when I apply that perception filter to The Music Lovers, what that part of my brain wants this to be is a story about the death of creativity as it relates to being in a relationship; that is to say, it feels like something that would  have been created by someone who, in their personal life, was feeling creatively stifled by their partner. I can’t find any evidence that this was the case for Russell here (he and his first wife had been married for thirteen or fourteen years at this point and would remain so for another eight or nine, and he was making a film nearly every year during this time with no apparent writer’s block), but I wonder if you got that same feeling, or if you felt something different. In other words, what, if anything, do you think Russell is saying about being an artist? 

Britnee: While I’m a fan of his movies, I don’t really know that much about Russell as a person or an artist. That’s embarrassing to admit, so shame on me. All I know is that he’s some sort of perverted genius. As the audience journeys thorugh the tortured life of Tchaikovsky, I have to admit there were times that I questioned what was the biographical component of Tchaikovsky versus what was the influence of Chamberlin versus what was the personal touch from Russell. Tchaikovsky struggled to live a truly authentic life, so what did that mean about his art? All of what he longed for was put into his musical creations. Russell’s films are known for being beautiful fever dreams, but I’m sure that he had his fair share of hardships (hopefully not as much as Tchaikovsky). I think he’s trying to remind us all of the struggles that artists endure to give us something that makes our lives more enjoyable. There is always pain lurking behind something beautiful. I didn’t think that Russell was trying to say something about how relationships can hinder the work of an artist, but now that I’m thinking about it, that seems pretty likely considering that the romantic relationships in film were what stopped Tchaikovsky from creating. And yes, it seemed to be more personal than just an exaggeration on a historical fact. I definitely want to give this another watch with this in mind!

Speaking of relationships, I was absolutely fascinated with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Madame Nadezhda con Meck. I was ignorant to this prior to watching The Music Lovers, so I was completely enamored by it on the initial watch. The horniness between the letters and visits to her estate without her physical presence had me so giddy with excitement. It was so kinky and so dramatic!

Lagniappe

Boomer: Above, Brandon mentioned four women who governed Tchaikovsky’s life—Nina, her mother, sister Sasha, and Nadezhda von Meck—but we’d be remiss to not mention the fifth: Tchaikovsky’s own mother. Her death haunts the composer for his whole life, literalized by Russell on screen as we see Tchaikovsky as a child witnessing her traumatic death at the hands of physicians attempting to treat her cholera, and those images reappear throughout his life. That Tchaikovsky’s life is in the shadow of such personal and intimate tribulation lends the whole thing an air of not just tragedy but inevitability. 

Hanna: I have a plan to mine the world of media to discover the truth about Tchaikovsky! To start, this weird little Disney mini-autobiography from 1959 is lacking in emotionally charged train-car seductions and (of course) absolutely refuses to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but I think the childhood sequence still captures his passionate, manic energy and dependence on platonic female relationships.

Britnee: I’ve loved every Ken Russell movie I’ve ever seen, so I’m on a mission to watch them all! I’m probably not going to come out of this the same. Thank god for therapy.

Brandon: As this is his third entry in our ever-expanding Movie of the Month canon (after Crimes of Passion & Salome’s Last Dance), I believe we should declare Ken Russell as Swampflix’s official MVP.  Before he loses this blog-historic lead to the likes of Mario Bava or Tobe Hooper (who both have two MotM selections to their name), I say we all join in Britnee’s mission and rebrand this feature the Ken Russell Movie of the Month, sinking forever further into the madness of his filmography. 

Next Month: Boomer presents Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Our current Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s lurid living-tableau Salome’s Last Dance, is a metatextual adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s banned stage play, Salome. It’s a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Russell’s specialty. His metatextual approach to Salome allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapidfire dry humor (as the jeering audience for a brothel-staff production of his own play) and the director’s sopping wet everything else. It’s an example of a provocateur artist lovingly tipping his hat to an even more infamous provocateur artist from our literary past, and not the only example from Russell’s own catalog.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to explore similar instances of Ken Russell paying homage to the over-the-top weirdo artists who inspired him.

Gothic (1986)

The only other literary figure in Ken Russell’s collection of provocateur homages is the poet Lord Byron, who looms large as a horndog villain in the hallucinatory horror-drama Gothic. In Gothic, Russell dramatizes Byron’s infamously sweaty night swapping ghost stories & hallucinations with fellow writers Mary & Percy Shelley while growing increasingly mad with horniness (and laudanum!). It’s a historic event that’s been made legend by teenage lit nerds & Kate Beaton comics, if not only for inspiring Mary Shelley to pen her novel Frankenstein and, thus, effectively inventing the genre of science fiction. When seen through Russell’s eyes, however, it’s an event most interesting for its unhinged social chaos and the monstrous behavior of the evening’s host, Byron, in particular.

Whereas Salome’s Last Dance turned Oscar Wilde’s play into a series of outrageous living tableaus, Gothic reinterprets an infamous moment in literary history as a cheap haunted house chiller. After a group séance conjures a demon that disrupts their ghost story trading with some “real” (i.e. hallucinated) scares, the story that inspired the film mostly devolves into manic haunted house gags that Byron lords over in hopes of isolating every last one of his guests for an intimate sexual encounter. Like with Salome, this event is also presented through a metatextual framing device, with modern tourists snapping photographs of the estate where Byron’s horned-up antics tortured two fellow literary geniuses for his own amusement – something Russell himself can’t help but gawk at in admiration.

Gothic is Ken Russell striving to be on his worst behavior despite an unusually tight budget. It’s the exact kind of maniacally perverse spectacle you always hope for from him, staged with the resources of a Kate Bush music video stretched out to feature length. The way it depicts the Shelleys’ romantic dynamic is also surprisingly on-point about the misogyny at the core of Free Love politics, but it’d be a lie to suggest that’s the #1 issue on its mind. Mostly, the film is presented as an amoral appreciation of Lord Byron’s laudanum-fueled prurient villainy.

Lisztomania (1975)

If Gothic finds Ken Russell’s wildest impulses restrained by a 1980s music video budget, his mid-70s rock opera Lisztomania is a glimpse of what he could do when fully allowed to run wild & torch piles of studio money. Hot off his sole mainstream hit with Tommy, Russell cast The Who frontman Roger Daltry as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in an even more obnoxious, unwieldy exercise in pure style. Lisztomania is all shrill, gleefully vapid, dialed-to-11 excess from start to tend – a Pure Sinema indulgence that’s just as obnoxious as it is magnificent. It’s essentially Ken Russell’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with all the triumphs, sleaze, and annoyances that descriptor implies.

In a proto-Velvet Goldmine meltdown between reality & fantasy, Russell positions Liszt as a glam rockstar heartthrob more befitting of the 1970s than the 1800s. The film opens backstage at a wild orgiastic party preceding one of his concerts, where hundreds of squealing teen girls demand that he play “Chopsticks” on loop in a fit of 19th Century Beatlemania. Liszt truly was a Teen Beat heartthrob in his time, and the movie remains “true” to the bullet points of his life in that way as he pursues his “art” at the expense of his his family & comrades. It’s impossible to claim that a movie where Listz’s friend/rival Richard Wagner is a literal Nazi vampire whom Liszt must smite in order to save the planet is historically accurate, but the film is at least spiritually accurate in touching on the broader details. Lisztomania is mainly a celebration of Franz Liszt as a himbo partyboy pop icon, with very little energy put into tempering or contextualizing that indulgence.

I don’t know that this registers as one of my very favorite Ken Russell pictures, but it does feel like one of the most Ken Russell pictures. If you think watching a series of films wherein a 1970s British auteur pays homage to composers, artists, and literary giants of the past sounds stuffy or pretentious, I offer this horned-up nightmare as a counterpoint. It’s an anti-Nazi glam rock opera that features vampires, Frankenstein monsters, forced-femme fantasies, paper mâché dicks, and Ringo Starr as the goddamn pope. What a beautiful, cacophonous mess.

The Music Lovers (1971)

This manic love letter to a provocateur artist of the past is aimed at 19th Century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play. It’s a lewd, lurid joy as always, but it’s one that smartly saves its most over-the-top indulgences for well-timed bursts. As a result, it very well might be my personal favorite film of this bunchSalome’s Last Dance includedif not only for knowing how to choose its Moments wisely. If the dialed-to-11 zaniness of titles like Gothic & Lisztomania test your patience as if you were babysitting a hyperactive child, I highly recommend giving The Music Lovers a look so you can experience those same manic highs in small, manageable doses.

The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, whom Russell portrays in the film as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife due to his strongly queer sexual preferences, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, his stalker/patron, etc. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the final sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Watching this particular batch of Ken Russell films was an extremely rewarding exercise for me. I expected these titles to be some of Russell’s stuffiest and best-behaved, given the high-art pedigree of their historic subjects, but they turned out to be just as wild as his no-fucks-given 80s frivolities like Altered States & The Lair of the White Worm. Even The Music Lovers can be wildly over-the-top when it chooses to be, an occasional self-indulgence that landed the film fiercely negative contemporary reviews for its historical inaccuracies. As someone who cares way more about cinematic hedonism & over-the-top artifice than faithfulness to source material or historical fact, that self-pleasing blasphemy pandered directly to what I love about movies. I’m now starting to consider Ken Russell one of my very favorite directors (as opposed to just the director of Crimes of Passion, one of my very favorite movies).

-Brandon Ledet