The Music Lovers (1971) – Film Review

the music lovers film review (3)

Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian
Certificate: 15

By Sarah Morgan

If there’s one thing you’re sure of when you switch on a Ken Russell movie, it’s that you’re not going to be bored.

Whether you love him or loathe him (and he does have a tendency to polarise opinion), nobody could ever accuse him of having trod a dull path, or of not at least attempting to push boundaries.

Known as the enfant terrible of British cinema during the 1960s and 1970s, Russell opted to make often lavish and outlandish productions at a time when many of his contemporaries were dealing with the gritty realism of the kitchen sink genre, or dabbling in audience-pleasing sex comedies.

the music lovers film review (1)“Difficulty of living a double life”

Russell first made his name directing episodes of the BBC’s documentary strands Monitor and Omnibus, with his biographies of Romantic composers proving of particular note.

After the Oscar-winning success of Women in Love, he returned to the subject for his next big screen project, The Music Lovers, which focuses on the life of Tchaikovsky. Russell once described the story as being one of a homosexual who fell in love with a nymphomaniac, which is quite a thought.

Women in Love’s Alan Bates and Oliver Reed were both considered for the lead, but it was Richard Chamberlain, still then best known for his role as TV’s Doctor Kildare from a decade earlier, who was cast, in part because he could play the piano – that really is him hammering on the keys in various scenes.

Tchaikovsky’s sexuality has been discussed for decades, and Chamberlain’s casting here is rather interesting. Now openly gay, he was at the time still well and truly in the closet, so knew something of the effort and difficulty of living a double life, as Tchaikovsky is believed to have done. That knowledge now gives extra meaning and depth to his performance.

The composer did attempt to live a ‘normal’ life by marrying Antonia Miliukova, portrayed here by Russell muse Glenda Jackson, but as we see, their union was a complete disaster, ending with her trapped in the degrading and demoralising conditions of a lunatic asylum.

In fact, nobody is happy in The Music Lovers. It is a tale of frustration, distress and misery, punctuated and enlivened by some of Tchaikovsky’s most incredible works.

the music lovers film review (2)

“Tough and yet beautiful”

The screenplay, by Melvyn Bragg, has little dialogue; instead, it’s the music that does a lot of the storytelling, with scenes played out against it. There are some incredible set pieces too, the kind that only Russell, then in his pomp, could create – the opening winter festival, the 1812 Overture scenes and Antonia’s attempt to seduce her horrified husband in a train carriage being particularly memorable.

The year 1971 was a productive one for the director; he also released The Devils and The Boy Friend as well as The Music Lovers during that 12-month period. Although the latter may be the least well-remembered these days, it’s far from being a poor relation.

Well-acted, sordid, grimy, tough and yet beautiful, it deserves to be recognised among Russell’s best work. Here’s hoping this stunning new Blu-ray release boosts its reputation.

As is customary with BFI releases, there are a number of special features to enjoy, including Charlotte Brontë Enters the Big Brother House, a little-seen film made in Bradford charting Russell’s work with amateur dancers in the city, and a fascinating, often brutally honest interview with his son, Alexander Verney-Elliott.

Sadly, there’s no interview with any surviving cast or crew members – a few insights from Chamberlain and/or Bragg would have gone down a treat, but that’s a small and rather picky criticism for an otherwise excellent and welcome disc.

Special Features
  • Presented in High Definition
  • Newly recorded audio commentary by film historian Matthew Melia
  • It Runs in the Family (2024, 20 mins): Ken Russell’s son, Alexander Verney-Elliott, looks back upon his father's work, and remembers his own appearance in The Music Lovers
  • Charlotte Brontë Enters the Big Brother House (2007, 16 mins): Ken Russell staged, directed and filmed this 'radical Brontë' ballet for young people, illustrating Jane Eyre
  • The Guardian Interview: Melvyn Bragg (1988, 76 mins): ten years after the inception of The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg discusses his career in television and film with writer Ronald Harwood, at the National Film Theatre in London
  • Galina Ulanova in "Swan Lake" (1940, 4 mins): one of the greatest ballerinas of all time performs a dance from Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece
  • Musical Highlights from USSR Today (1953-56, 10 mins): edited highlights from three editions of the Soviet newsreel, gathering items about Tchaikovsky and Russian musical arts
  • Costume designs: original sketches by Shirley Russell
  • Original trailer
  • First pressing only: Illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Matthew Melia, a new essay by Caroline Langhorst and contributions from Alexander Verney-Elliott and Lisi Russell; notes on the special features and credits
The Music Lovers is released on Blu-ray by the BFI

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