Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Ken Russell: great imaginer of music

Showbiz 411 tributes to Ken Russell by Martin Scorsese and Ben Kingsley

I was very sorry to hear of the death at 84 of film director Ken Russell; apart from the basic news, there's been very little on television so far. My favourite obituaries so far are the ones in the Los Angeles Times by "Culture Monster" (Ken Russell, one of film’s great imaginers of music.) and the New Yorker's Culture Desk (Ken Russell: The Rare Director Who Understood Musical Greatness).

Russell produced a certain amount of rubbish, and has often tended to categorized purely for his dimension of outrageousness ...

"the chief defiler of celebrities of the past and present," which is what Pauline Kael called him.

... but I don't think that's accurate. His films brought a kind of 'comic strip' approach to musical biographies: outrageous exaggeration, anachronism and invention cloaking an essentially faithful portrayal of musical history in terms accessible to the modern mindset. Lisztomania is my favourite in this respect, faithful both in its portrayal of Liszt fan frenzy - "Lisztomania" - and in biographical detail, being partially based on the "kiss and tell" novel Nélida, by Liszt's longtime mistress Marie d'Agoult. The same goes for the 1970 The Music Lovers (Russell's take on Tchaikovsky) and the 1974 Mahler. (This is not forgetting his lower-key earlier biographies s such as the 1962 dramatised documentary Elgar; the 1966 Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World; the moving 1968 Song of Summer, about the last days of Delius, reportedly so accurate that Eric Fenby had a nervous breakdown over the suppressed recollections it activated).

His vigorous approach worked just as well on his groundbreaking film of The Who's rock opera Tommy, and his wide musical interests also surfaced in the (in my view) under-rated Crimes of Passion, whose score was a prog-rock adaptation by Rick Wakeman of Dvořák's New World Symphony; and in his contribution to Aria, an excellent compilation film in which various directors filmed music videos for operatic arias.

Other personal highlights from Russell's work that spring to mind: the 1969 DH Lawrence adaptation Women in Love; the 1971 The Devils, despite its hugely controversial reputation a not-so-wildly exaggerated portrayal of historical events described in Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon; the 1972 Savage Messiah, a biopic unusually for Russell not about a composer, but about the French sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska;  the 1986 Gothic, a not at all bad portrayal of the Shelleys' visit to Lord Byron at Villa Diodati that led to the writing of Frankenstein and The Vampyre; and the 1988 The Lair of the White Worm. Russell's comedy-horror treatment of this final example incorporated his signature fixations on sex and religion, and in fact they prove faithful to Bram Stoker's own obsessions - it's an again rather under-rated take on a hard-to-film book. See The Lair of the White Worm previously.

As Russell was a film-maker, I think it's appropriate to end this appreciation with a sampler of clips from his works:

  • 1962: Elgar: Portrait of a Composer (in full on YouTube: part 1 / 2 / 3 / 4).
  • 1968: Song of Summer: portraying the difficult collaboration between the syphilis-crippled Delius and the uptight Fenby. In full on YouTube: part 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5. Of all of these clips, this one is a must to check out.
  • 1970: Omnibus: Dance of the Seven Veils:  a highly controversial and little-seen biographical film, portraying the links between Richard Strauss and Nazism.
  • 1970: The Music Lovers.
  • 1974: Clip from Mahler: spot the movie quotation at 5:10 onward; and Mahler - The Conversion scene: Mahler's conversion from Judaism to Christianity dramatised through an over-the-top fantasy sequence filmed in some mountain quarry, involving Cosima Wagner and a mix of Wagnerian, Nazi and religious iconography.
  • 1975: Elton John, Pinball Wizard, from Tommy.
  • 1975: Love's Dream from Lisztomania: sensitive arrangement of Liszt's Liebesträume No. 3 as a Charlie Chaplin pastiche.
  • 1984: Clip from Crimes of Passion (NSFW): exemplifying its sharp dialogue, synth-heavy score from the New World Symphony, and Anthony Perkins' tour de force performance as a tormented street preacher who becomes embroiled in a relationship with the prostitute alter ego of a businesswoman, played by Kathleen Turner.
  • 1988: D'Ampton Worm song - Lair of the White Worm  - and the movie trailer (NSFW).
  • 1987: Nessun Dorma from Aria (NSFW): Russell's segment uses "Nessun dorma" from Turandot as backing for a powerful fantasy in which a car accident victim's resuscitation mirrors a dream scene of tribal ritual.

The Performance786 YouTube channel has a number of Russell's early short films including the 1956 Peepshow and Knights on Bikes; the 1957 Amelia and the Angel; and the 1961 Antonio Gaudi.

- Ray

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