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November 28, 2011

Ken Russell's curious legacy of classical composer bio-pics

Ken Russell, the brilliant and brilliantly controversial English film director, died Sunday at the age of 84.

Movie buffs, I imagine, will remember him chiefly for such works as "Women in Love" and "The Devils." Classical music fans will also remember him for his string of curious, often bizarre bio-pics of composers, including Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Elgar and Delius. (Mr. Russell's film on Richard Strauss never ...

saw the light of day, since he played up the composer's Nazi associations so strongly that the Strauss estate prohibited use of the music.)

I still recall the shock the first time I saw "The Music Lovers," Mr. Russell's version of Tchaikovsky's life, starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson. At least that one had a certain entertainment (and trace of camp) value, along with some splendid scenes that really did bring characters and events into sharp relief.

With "Mahler," Mr. Russell's imagination went into hyper-drive and pretty much destroyed the final result. Poor Robert Powell had the great fortune to look rather like Mahler, but was stuck in such an awful mix of history and fantasy that he never had a chance.

Still, I admired Mr. Russell's interest in great classical composers and his willingness to seek a cinematic means of bringing them to life. Here's the trailer to "Mahler," followed by a nutty dream sequence from "The Music Lovers" that ends with Tchaikovsky literally being put on a pedestal:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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