Judge Clark Douglas had a documentary made about him. It was called Douglas: The Dull Life of a Man Who Once Listened to the Work of a Musical Genius.
"I will not alter my work. I am not changing one note. It will be published just as it is."—Ed Stoppard as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky: The Tragic Life of a Musical Genius is a curious hybrid of numerous elements. In part, it is a well-staged biopic of Tchaikovsky's life, featuring Ed Stoppard (The Pianist) in the role of the famous Russian composer. It's also partially a documentary, featuring conductor Charles Hazlewood offering information on Tchaikovsky's career and visiting numerous places of importance from the composer's life. Yet another part of this feature is a concert film, featuring performances of Tchaikovsky's most well-known and respected musical works. It's all presented as a two-part miniseries, with each hour-long portion incorporating all of these elements. So is Tchaikovsky a messy bowl of musical soup or a compelling concoction?
Certain aspects work better than others, but overall this is a very interesting program. Hazelwood offers a refreshingly passionate take on Tchaikovsky's work. This may be a clinical examination of his life, but it's also a heartfelt appreciation of his music. To hear Hazlewood marvel at the then-audacious sensuality and passion of Tchaikovsky's music is wonderful, and Hazlewood accentuates his points beautifully by conducting superbly performed selections from Tchaikovsky's body of work. Selections from "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker," the sixth symphony, the "1812 Overture," and many other notable Tchaikovsky works are offered here.
Stoppard's performance seems just a little bit empty, all inspiration and no motivation. There are slightly gratuitous scenes depicting Tchaikovsky's secret sexual life as a gay man, which seem as if they have been for viewers who might not be so interested in all the musical performances and such. While those scenes feel like needless padding, I did find the scenes that speculate on the cause of Tchaikovsky's death to be quite interesting. To this day, nobody seems to have a very clear idea of what happened to the composer, but there are some rather compelling ideas and theories raised here.
Still, what Hazlewood has to say about this subject is still considerably more interesting than anything the dramatic scenes offer us. For that matter, Hazlewood's examinations of Tchaikovsky's music are even more interesting than any of the information provided about his life, which makes this a mini-series that will likely benefit classical music lovers more than it will those looking for a juicy biopic. Anyway, Hazlewood has some interesting conversations with other modern-day individuals, and these are all quite good. He talks with a group of young classical musicians and asks them what they feel when playing Tchaikovsky's music. He visits a famous ballerina, and quizzes her about the unique challenges of performing "Swan Lake." He asks an opera star about whether or not the music speaks to her on a personal level. You get the idea. I really appreciated this, as we get to hear from other musical professionals who may have a slightly less biased view of the composer than Hazlewood (something I'm sure the conductor was aware of when he decided to do these interviews).
Video quality on this DVD is generally very good, surprisingly moreso during the documentary/performance sequences than during the biopic sequences. The latter scenes tend to be rather poorly lit at times, and an attempt at moody atmosphere turns into unnecessarily murky visuals. The sound is about as good as Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound can be, but it's a shame that we couldn't get some 5.1 sound for the spectacular musical performances. There is only one extra, but it's a good one: the Omnibus episode, "Who Killed Tchaikovsky?" While this does cover some similar territory as the main program, it's still worth a watch. Tchaikovsky: The Tragic Life of a Musical Genius will make an engaging viewing experience for those with an interest in classical music, and serve as an accessible introduction to the composer for those who are merely curious.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "Omnibus: Who Killed Tchaikovsky?"
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