Camp David


By • Jun 20th, 2012 •

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During his lifetime it was Ken Russell’s great pleasure as a film director to match music with images. He would do this at the beginning of his career with his now legendary work for the BBC, which like his film career would display a unique personal vision from the metaphorical study of Richard Strauss in DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS to his factual meditation on Delius with SONG OF SUMMER. I first became aware of the films of Ken Russell during that amazing period of his creativity which began with WOMEN IN LOVE and climaxed (for lack of a better word) with LISTOMANIA. Most of his detractors during this time would site his early work with the BBC as his “golden age” and then lament, even seen his work from this period how could they really understand his films? And how could they appreciate how on course he really was in his selection of subjects for these diverse works of art.

THE MUSIC LOVERS was met at the time of its release by such hostility from the critics because I suspect none them understood Russell’s film or his lifelong intoxication with music which was the driving force by which he created this baroque phantasmagoric account of Tchaikovsky’s life, and were instead expecting a “standard” biopic on the composer. There is a very telling moment in WOMEN IN LOVE (which would remain his most successful film with both audiences and critics) towards the end when Vladek Sheybal as an esoteric character called “Loerke” actually prepares us for what would become a harrowing tour de force in the upcoming THE MUSIC LOVERS. Loerke tells Glenda Jackson’s character “Gudrun” of Tchaikovsky’s ‘wedding night’ and of the unwanted sexual advances of his new bride, whom ironically is also portrayed by Jackson. It would be the success of WOMEN IN LOVE that would allow Russell to make THE MUSIC LOVERS, and it seems he had the story on his mind while creating the first film, as these two events dovetail so precisely.

I happened to be in New York City when THE MUSIC LOVERS premiered and rushed downtown to see it on opening day, only to discover the theater was barely half full. It seemed to me like I was watching the film by myself, which was just as well because it made a profound impression on me as a young gay man just coming to terms with my own sexuality because THE MUSIC LOVERS confronts Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality head on. Considering at the time that homosexuality was rarely if ever addressed, two exceptions being VICTIM, which was groundbreaking at the time in the UK because it led to an alteration of the law regarding sexuality between consenting adults, and ADVISE AND CONSENT which uses a senator’s wartime same sex escapade for blackmail.

Regarding the composer’s sexuality, Richard Chamberlain was an ideal bit of casting since he, too, was closeted at the time and understood Tchaikovsky’s motivations perhaps even better than Russell did. When I interviewed Chamberlain years later he still maintained that the film was really a meditation of loneliness, avoiding the obvious just as he was currently doing with his autobiography regarding his “coming out” as a gay man. I wanted to tell him he actually had already come out in Ken Russell’s film, but to his credit he did feel that THE MUSIC LOVERS was possibly “The best work I ever did on film.” And I could not argue with that.

THE MUSIC LOVERS is based in part on a book ‘Beloved Friend’ by Barbara Von Meck, and this account of Tchaikovsky’s life observes his patronage by Nadejda Von Meck (a benefactor whom Russell then turns into yet another music lover) who must suppress her own sexual desires for the composer just as he does by rejecting a relationship with his true love Count Chiluvsky played here by Christopher Gable, a longtime Russell regular who would star in the director’s version of THE BOYFRIEND. Madame Von Meck is played in the film by Izabella Telezynska, a polish actress who would appear in several Ken Russell films, most notably in DANTE’S INFERNO as Christina Rossetti. Izabella gave a beautiful performance in THE MUSIC LOVERS, and this along with her elegant cameo in Visconti’s LUDWIG as the Queen Mother made me want to meet this lady in the flesh. Sometimes you must be careful what you wish for, as I would discover much later on when we would finally meet in Hollywood.

THE MUSIC LOVERS is not an easy film to appreciate if you are looking for an old fashioned conventional biography like they used to make in Hollywood in the 1940’s. Like SONG WITHOUT END, which gives us, a Chopin played by Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon as a very unlikely George Sand. Russell does channel a bit of THE GREAT WALTZ of the 1930’s in at least one scene where Tchaikovsky fantasizes his bliss as having both his lover and sister at his feet while living an idyllic country life free of responsibility and allowing all the forces of nature to inspire him to compose. In THE GREAT WALTZ all Strauss has to do is take his mistress into the Vienna woods to get the inspiration to compose his popular masterpieces. Unfortunately art is not always that easy to create even on a soundstage commanded by a devious director like Ken Russell. THE MUSIC LOVERS is a send up of all these old films and much more since Russell used Tchaikovsky’s music to create a visually daring fantasy that is sexually explicit even if it is quite irresponsible with the facts in the composer’s life.

I was aware from the very first images of the film’s prologue with its dazzling quick cuts to each of the principals being introduced that this was no ordinary biography of a composer done to enlighten the viewer to his genius. Rather this was sensuous, baroque romanticism straight from the imagination of Ken Russell. We are introduced to all the principals of the film in rapid succession and they are thrust at us without any knowledge of their relationship to one another. It is brilliant and the credits are still rolling, by the time we encounter them again. Tchaikovsky is preparing his B flat Minor piano concerto at a private premier under the disapproving eye of Rubinstein, whom is archly played by Max Adrian, another Russell regular. This lengthy sequence introduces Russell’s central theme of THE MUSIC LOVERS: the destructive power of losing oneself in self indulgence at the expense of everyone around you, (the fantasy world that Tchaikovsky escapes into in order to compose his music, as well as his sexual desires for both his male lover and his sister, both forbidden to him in real life). Madame Von Meck is placed front and center during this sequence and her importance to Tchaikovsky is clear since it is her memoirs that form some of script for THE MUSIC LOVERS. Izabella Telezynska, who by then had appeared in five films for Ken Russell, including BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN and THE DEVILS, plays Madame Von Meck very much inkeeping with the performance she gave Visconti when she played the Queen Mother to Helmut Berger’s King Ludwig in that director’s film. Madame Von Meck becomes Tchaikovsky’s patron for a time until, as the film would have it, his lover Count Chiluvsky informs her of his homosexuality at a particularly dramatic moment in the film. The news is met with fireworks and celebration for he has just completed another piece of work, and yet it all ends in fire as he is banished from her estates. To make that point clear she sets fire to her own property as if to remove the blight of homosexuality from the very land on which he lived and worked. We learn that all of his music lovers want to possess him sexually and once denied this he is cast out until all he really has is his music, which of course is what Russell is sending up all along. He deceptively creates a textbook music biography in the grand tradition of screen biographies of the past, yet every frame has something going on that is very much unlike any screen biography ever produced except of course the ones by Ken Russell. THE DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS personifies this, where Russell’s imagination takes the composer Strauss into a realm of fantasy which only Russell would have thought necessary to make his point clear – that the music will create the image.

Glenda Jackson gives an astonishing performance in this film with little or no regard for her image. She is a brilliant actress who believed in her director, who totally allowed him to take her into places very few actresses would ever go. From that sly moment when Tchaikovsky brushes past her early on in the film until that awkward instance when they meet because of her letters, we have already seen that her past encounters with men have been rough and loveless. Yet to Tchaikovsky, she is once again left to his overactive imagination to create this fantasy of a wife that will put right all his hidden impulses for other men and thrust him into a normal life. The legend goes that Russell got the financing for THE MUSIC LOVERS by telling United Artists “This was the story of a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.” And that is basically what he gave them unless you also take into account this is a multi-layered film, and it takes several viewings to really understand all of the myths, facts and dreams which comprise the ironic vision Ken Russell created.

Tchaikovsky may have only spent a short amount of time with his wife Nina in real life but in Russell’s film it is her descent into madness that fuels the second half of the film. With no one to care in a film filled with self-serving characters, we watch as Nina is patronized as his “wife” until only her selfish mother takes her in tow to pimp out as a mad whore to men she thinks will make her famous husband jealous. The scene in which Nina realizes her husband is lost to her forever when he tries to strangle her is harrowing to watch in the hands of an actress of Jackson’s range and power….”He never loved me” she keeps repeating until she pulls a shawl over her head to keep from seeing or feeling anything else. Russell takes us to the very abyss by showing Nina in a madhouse where her nymphomania is finally sated by allowing herself to be gang groped by the inmates through an iron grate while she merely places her skirt over it. This scene would not have been out of place in The devils, it is that over the top. We are not really surprised at this because Russell already lowered the bar for what Jackson would do in the aforementioned “wedding night on the train” sequence which visually hammers home the sexual nightmare Tchaikovsky experienced when left alone with the dreaded female form. Nina’s body lying naked like a piece of meat rocks back and forth, the camera lens distorting her into something ugly and disgusting. Only an actress who trusts her director could have done a sequence like this, and the result is unforgettable.

The final half of the film owes a certain debt to Cocteau as the music lovers all come together for a final fantasy set to the 1812 overture in which all of them, Madame Von Meck, Count Chiluvsky, and Nina pursue the object of their collective desire one last time. Tchaikovsky by now has turned his career over to his brother Modeste to sell him out and exploit him as a national hero complete with a stone statue to worship after he is gone. The music lovers all chase after him only to one by one get their heads blown off perfectly in time to his overture. The only misfire is Nina herself who is still too unaware to lose her head, after all she really never had her head to begin with and remains alive, confined to a madhouse in the film’s final image. Russell gives his composer a life without happiness since only his mother could have provided that. Conducting for profit and resting on his laurels is what his final days are about. Tchaikovsky never saw his mother die but yet, as the film suggests, they both died from cholera.

Modeste did in fact convince his brother to change the title of his Sixth Symphony from the ‘Tragic’ to the ‘Pathetique.’ This would follow another of Russell’s embellishments since we know that it was unlikely that Tchaikovsky would knowingly drink contaminated water, and yet this would not be unlike the composer, being self destructive to the finale. The film allows only one conclusion: that self indulgence even by a genius can never survive living a life evading one’s true nature. In the end Nina realizes “He never loved me” while Tchaikovsky comes to terms with the obvious – a boy’s best friend is always his mother. The conclusions for all the music lovers remains decidedly “pathetique.”

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