Some years ago in London, at the premiere of John Cage’s “Europeras 3 & 4,” I bumped into Ken Russell in the press queue. He complained that he had been marginalized in film and television, where it was becoming next to impossible to do anything imaginative. He had lately been staging operas and raised so many hackles that he didn’t think he’d have much more of a career in that. So he thought he’d become a music critic.
“But that’s what you’ve always been,” I said.
“Oh, you noticed,” he replied as he headed for the Champagne.
I don’t know that Russell, who died in London on Sunday at 84, ever actually wrote any reviews. He did write some books about composers once his film career had tanked. They include “Elgar: The Erotic Variations” and “Brahms Gets Laid.” They are not what he is going to be remembered for.
But neither do I predict that Russell ultimately will be known as “the chief defiler of celebrities of the past and present,” which is what Pauline Kael called him. Russell was not only one of the most musical of all filmmakers, he was one of film’s great imaginers of music. No one made music films so infused with, so intoxicated by, music.
Yes, he could be puerile. He portrayed Liszt as a sex-crazed rock star pursued by a giant penis. He showed Richard Strauss cavorting with Hitler so salaciously that the censorious Strauss estate has managed to get that particular television documentary pulled from circulation. The neurotic, erotic carryings on of his Mahler and Tchaikovsky don’t qualify as proper musicology.
But Russell always started with the music — how it made him feel, how it took over his life. Music was, for him, the key to our inner lives. It gave us permission to fantasize, to dream, to be extravagant. That is what he showed. He said he made films to get pictures music created out of his mind.
He began with black-and-white, low-budget documentaries on composers for a highbrow BBC television show called “Monitor,” in which it was thought improper for actors to portray the subjects in documentaries. Russell soon changed that.
“Elgar: Portrait of a Composer,” one of Russell’s early “Monitor” documentaries, opens with a shot of the boyhood Elgar riding his horse in the country to the accompaniment of his high-spirited Serenade for Strings. The image illustrates the music, not the other way around, and you are immediately hooked on Elgar.
Three years later, after films on Bartók and Vaughan Williams, Russell was already significantly pushing limits in “The Debussy Film.” He begins like a French New Wave film, with a film crew arriving on a location to stage Debussy’s funeral. A beautiful girl in a T-shirt is pierced with arrows. A silly British reporter shows up. It is not until seven minutes in that any music is heard, and by then it sounds miraculous.
“Song of Summer,” Russell’s deeply moving 1968 account of Delius’ last five years, is often called his masterpiece by people who couldn’t stand the director’s later, more outrageous films. It chronicles the relationship between a syphilitic composer — blind, paralyzed, impossible — and a young composer, Eric Fenby, who helped Delius write his final works.
Delius had all but consumed Fenby’s own creativity, and when Fenby saw the film he found it so true to life that he had a nervous breakdown. He also developed a skin condition that made it impossible for him to wear any clothes for a year, as if all that he had suppressed throughout his life came pouring out of his body thanks to this unflinching, mesmerizing film and its ability to reveal the haunting quality of Delius’ music.
The success of “Song of Summer” allowed Russell to begin making feature films, and along with such notable successes as “Women in Love,” he made his three, increasingly eccentric composer biopics. “The Music Lovers” starred Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky. Next came “Mahler,” then Lisztomania,” with Roger Daltrey as the composer. All were ahead of their times, particularly “The Music Lovers,” which, in 1970, explored Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality at a time when that wasn’t an open topic. It is a flamboyant film, certainly. But it is also honest with a sophisticated screenplay by Melvin Bragg. It makes clear, as few biopics ever do, what is fanciful. And Tchaikovsky’s music, superbly conducted by André Previn, makes clear why.
Russell also deserves credit for hiring major composers to write soundtracks for many of his other films. Peter Maxwell Davies was one. He scored “The Devils” and the musical “The Boy Friend,” which starred Twiggy. Now “Sir Peter,” the Master of the Queen’s Music and one of Britain’s most distinguished composers, Davies remembered Russell Monday in the Guardian newspaper.
“His approach to film-making,” Davies said, “was very similar to that of a musician: his films evolved in long musical sentences.”
In the ’80s and early ’90s, Russell turned to opera direction, and just as he had made his movies operatic, he made opera outlandishly cinematic. At a festival in Florence, he set Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress,” an opera about moral decay, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and he invited Derek Jarman (a striking and controversial filmmaker in his own right) to design the set. Abbott and Costello were inspiration for Russell’s Geneva Opera staging of Rossini’s “Italian Girl in Algiers.”
There is so much more. Among his exceptional and, sadly, exceptionally hard to find these days television films are one of Bruckner in a sanitarium, an exuberant “ABC of British Music” and a Fellini-esque illumination of Holst’s “The Planets.”
Music made Russell what he was, and he paid music back royally.
— Mark Swed