Originally, I was going to post a review on another film, but I am currently suffering from a case of writer’s block on that right now. In the meantime and in an attempt to get my mojo back (so I can finish that review), I am going to post reviews on something a little more simpler, but no less complex. In this case, a series of TV bios on famous composers (among other types of giants).
When anybody hears the name Ken Russell (1927-2011), the first words that come to mind are either flamboyant or controversial. A majority of the time, one could say that both terms can apply to him all at once. According to wikipedia’s entry on legendary British filmmaker Ken Russell (read here), these are at least two proper descriptions that can be applied to him. Nevertheless, let us rewind the clocks back to 1959 – 10 years prior to his 1969 breakthrough film Women in Love – a critically acclaimed adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s equally controversial 1920 novel of the same name. From 1959 to 1970, Russell made documentaries/docudramas on celebrated composers (among other figures) for the British Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a. the BBC – read here). He directed at least 22 of them for Monitor (1959-1965) and 3 of them for it’s official/unofficial successor Omnibus (1967-1970). In between his last for Monitor (Always on Sunday) and his first for Omnibus (Dante’s Inferno), Russell contributed one for BBC’s Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and another as a stand-alone TV film (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World) in 1966. The following year, he would helm his second feature film (his first was the 1964 comedy French Dressing) entitled Billion Dollar Brain – a British Spy thriller for the American-based studio United Artists. Two days after Billion Dollar Brain’s American premiere (December 20, 1967 – read here), Dante’s Inferno (Russell’s first for Omnibus) premiered for UK television viewers on December 22 of that same year. Based on my calculations alone (read here), Russell directed at least 27 television bios for the BBC. Out of the 27, only 6 of them (at least to my knowledge) are available for home viewing in North America. They are in a 2008 DVD collection entitled Ken Russell at the BBC (read here). The available titles are: Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967) and Song of Summer (1968). The first three were for Monitor and the last two were for Omnibus. As I mentioned earlier, Isadora Duncan was a stand-alone TV film for the BBC. Russell’s last work for Omnibus during this period entitled Dance of the Seven Veils is not included in the box set. That last title incited a huge ton of controversy due to it’s portrayal of famed German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) as either a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer (read here). This angered the Strauss family so much that they withdrew the music rights for it. Apparently, the ban expires sometime this year in 2019 (read here). Currently, the only way one can watch it is on a faded print posted on youtube.
Famed U.S. film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) once said of late master filmmaker Robert Altman, that he could make film fireworks out of next to nothing (read here). This sentiment can also be applied to that of director Ken Russell. Compared to Russell’s more outrageous later work (The Music Lovers, The Devils and Lisztomania to name just a few), the style of his early television films may initially come off as subdued on the surface. Deep down though, each of the available six films prove to be every bit as radical (albeit different) to those previously mentioned titles. Even with their low-budgets, Russell amazingly managed to break the rules on what was widely accepted within the documentary format. Instead of traditionally relying on still photographs and old film footage alone to tell his story, Russell would not only dramatize it through a re-enactment, but he would also (in the case of Elgar) use different actors to portray the lead character as he/she ages (read here and here). And this only marks just one of Russell’s many talents at successfully making the most out of very little.
My full review of Elgar – the first of director Ken Russell’s six films in the aforementioned 2008 DVD collection – should be up sometime by tomorrow.