TBT – Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970)

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I had this enormous post written out about The Music Lovers (1970), but about 90% of it was drunken rambling. See, I quickly realized that, like The Count of Monte Cristo, my memory of this film did not stand up to the reality — and that reality required a lot of booze to get through. So, I’ve scrapped that post in favor of writing this one, which I hope is slightly more linear owing to the fact that I am, unfortunately, quite sober while writing this.

On the surface, this movie looks awesome. First off, it stars Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson. It’s about famous composer Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky (Chamberlain), a closeted gay man who somewhat impulsively marries a woman he’s never met, who turns out to be a nymphomaniac (Jackson). From my dim recollection of the VHS cover at my local video rental place in the late-80s, it was made out to be a quirky romp through 1880s Moscow set to Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits.

Yeeeah… About that cover art…

I suppose I should have realized that the very fact that this film was directed by Ken Russell means it probably wouldn’t be some wacky 1970s biopic filled with kitschy scenery chewing and bad 1970s hairdos unless it also featured a lot of disturbing imagery and depressing character relationships. So, yeah. Cocktails.

 

What I liked about The Music Lovers

Surprisingly, most of the 1880s costumes, which were designed by Shirley Russell (Ken’s wife, in case you were wondering). She designed quite a few of Russell’s movies before and after The Music Lovers, including Russell’s arguably best-known film, Tommy (1975).

Not surprisingly, the music is pretty awesome. It’s Tchaikovsky. What’s not to love? And some of the visuals are really stunning, such as the nascent Swan Lake performance with Pyotr’s sister and brother by a lake… with swans…

Or the way that Sasha Tchaikovsky seems to disappear into the trees as she and her brother stroll through the forest.

I also felt the film’s treatment of his sexual orientation was fairly progressive for the 1970s — there’s no overt moralizing, but the stigma of being gay is shown in subtler ways. The wink and a nod between Tchaikovsky’s colleagues at the conservatory, his brother and sister imploring him to take a wife and at least pretend to be straight for the sake of his career, and in the finale, his former lover effectively shit-canning his lucrative patronage by revealing his sexual proclivities. It’s all handled far more subtly than I was expecting, especially considering the intensity of the scenery chewing.

Also worth pointing out: Richard Chamblerain was playing a famous closeted gay man while being a famous closeted gay man.

 

What I didn’t like about The Music Lovers

Tchaikovsky’s beau, Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable), has quite possibly the worst hair of the lot. Funnily enough, I’ve called out Christopher Gable in another Richard Chamberlain film for his bad hair…

Gable is making the same face I kept making every time he was on screen. “WHO THOUGHT THAT HAIR WAS A GOOD IDEA???”

This weird corset worn by Glenda Jackson that looks like it’s too short to be supportive, but too long to be an underbust corset. Also, WTF modern hair.

At least she covers the modern hairdo up with hairpieces and hats when she is fully dressed.

The over-wrought Freudian imagery. Then again, this is a Ken Russell film. I’m not sure I should have expected anything different.

AAAAAGH IT’S A VAGINA!!!!

AAAAAGH IT’S A PENIS!!!! AAAAAGH!!!

I think Monty Python pretty much sums it all up.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, she enjoys the solitude of a long, hot bath. You can find her costuming trails and tribulations chronicled at Mode Historique.

16 Responses

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I dunno… The subject matter had a lot of potential, but it just got uncomfortably weird. Then again, that’s totally Ken Russell’s M.O.

      I need to bump up The Boy Friend in my review queue. That was one of my favorite films as a kid, and I never realized it was a Ken Russell flick until I started writing this post. Should be fun to go back and revisit and see how much fucked up shit went over my head in my youth.

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        First commandment of Ken Russell film: make viewers feel uncomfortably weird. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

        And now I realized I didn’t tag Gothic & Valentino w/Ken Russell. BRB.

        Reply
  1. kpl

    I’m a musicologist, and I’ve always wanted to teach a music-historiography-via-Ken-Russell course. These movies are amazingly hot messes.

    Reply
  2. ladyaquanine73551

    There are just some films where you can only enjoy it if you’re totally sauced. Trying to watch some films sober is not always advisable. (There are a few that can only be enjoyed when high too). I could think of a few, though they’re not historical costume movies.

    Reply
  3. MoHub

    Russell also directed a production of Madama Butterfly for the Spoleto Festival in which he latched onto its Nagasaki setting and moved it to the 1940s, ending with film of the atomic bomb exploding. He also made Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki into roommate prostitutes, which totally undermined their character.

    Reply

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