Along with Always on Sunday, Elgar may be the most accessible of director Ken Russell’s television bios on famous historical artists during his years at the BBC (1959-1970). Far from damning it with faint praise though, I am actually lauding it as the perfect place for viewers to start with; at least when it comes to Russell’s television work.
On the surface, Elgar plays out as a conventional television documentary on a celebrated artist. In this case, it would be that of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Throughout it’s 56 minute running time, we get all of the interesting details about his life; courtesy of BBC broadcaster Huw Wheldon (1916-1986), who serves as the program’s narrator. Basically, the viewer is treated to everything from his upbringing to the last years of his life.
As with all of director Ken Russell’s television films, Elgar is a masterpiece of both form and content. Unlike a majority of Russell’s later work, Elgar seems to stick to the facts throughout. At first glance, this approach may seem shockingly reverential for diehard Ken Russell fans like myself. Fortunately, this fear is overshadowed by Russell’s visual approach to storytelling.
Aside from partly dramatizing British composer Edward Elgar’s life through a re-enactment (though with no dialogue whatsoever), director Ken Russell further celebrates it by employing his compositions as background music throughout. Taking into account the program’s use of lighting and it’s debatably Soviet montage theory-inspired editing, Russell’s style of filmmaking here seems to evoke that of silent cinema. At the same time, it’s use of dissolves and voiceovers hails all the way back to legendary American filmmaker Orson Welles back-to-back masterpieces of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) respectively. In fact, some of the techniques displayed in those last two titles, were borrowed from filmmakers associated with the French New Wave movement. One perfect example comes from esteemed French filmmaker Francois Truffaut in his 1962 classic Jules and Jim. Similar to Elgar, Truffaut employed newsreel footage, photographic stills and voiceovers to visually tell part of the story. Nevertheless, this is where Elgar’s similarities to Jules and Jim end. Compared to The Debussy Film (another Russell Monitor entry) from three years later, Elgar’s debatable French New Wave influences only plays a limited role here. This sentiment also applies to it when standing on it’s own.
Not unlike most of director Ken Russell’s work, Elgar (in some ways) unofficially feels like a semi-autobiographical account of Russell himself. While he may not have been born and raised as one, like British composer Edward Elgar was, Russell did convert to Roman Catholicism during the 1950’s (read here). Even with all of the cinematic influences he carried around (Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch) with him, Russell (like Elgar) was professionally self-taught. Even though this can be confirmed with any kind of authenticity, Russell (as with Elgar) may have detested large-scale wars as well; or at least war for war’s sake. Though still horrified by the prospect of World War I (1914-1918) itself, Elgar did compose a few patriotic pieces for the effort (read here) and joined the Volunteer Reserves on the side. Though, as the war went on, Elgar became disillusioned with it. During this time, he had also hoped that A.C. Benson’s nationalistic lyrics for his composition of Land of Hope and Glory would get axed (read here). Russell, on the other hand, joined the Royal Air Force and was a merchant marine during his teenage years (read here). Neither of these stints lasted very long though. A perfect example of Russell’s unconfirmed anti-war position comes during a battlefield sequence. Here, a large number of soldiers are getting killed and wounded set to the music of Elgar’s well-known Pomp and Circumstance Marches. The uplifting tone of the composition is intended to sharply contrast with the horrors of war being presented to the viewer. This may be Russell’s way of thumbing his nose at imperialism. Russell’s view can also apply to that of both America’s involvement in both Vietnam and Iraq. Even though both Elgar and Russell were more or less appreciated in their time, this is only to an extent. Germany may have been the first country to recognize Elgar’s genius, but the British press did finally catch up; even If it seemed more muted when he was alive (read here and here). Nevertheless, while Elgar was at least knighted during his lifetime, neither of Russell’s films (as of 2019) have been chosen for a spot on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list. Despite their differences, Elgar and Russell seemingly come off as reclusive (or semi-reclusive) artists, who are actually gentle at heart. Despite the way he is often portrayed in the press (read here), which also include, but are not limited to that bizarre Big Brother episode, Russell actually comes off as a very articulate and intelligent man based on his interviews alone.
Director Ken Russell may have gone on to make even better films within and out of television, but If you are looking for a rather fitting introduction to his cinematic resume, Elgar is not a bad place to start at all. Visually, we are treated to only one of many important aspects of his style, while at the same time, witnessing how one important artist of the past century personally connect to that of another.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. If you are interested in watching the whole film, here are four links to it below:
The link to the first part
The link to the second part
The link to the third part
The link to the fourth part