John Charet’s Take On: Always on Sunday (1965)

Upon reaching new creative heights with his previous Monitor entry The Debussy Film, director Ken Russell decided to end his career there on a quieter note with Always on Sunday, which aired one month later in June of 1965. For those interested, The Debussy Film’s original airdate was 05/18/65, while Always on Sunday’s was 06/29/65. Even so, Always on Sunday remains significant for reportedly being Russell’s first television documentary/docudrama to come off as a pure dramatization of a famous artist’s life (read here). Following broadcaster Huw Wheldon’s departure from the aforementioned programme in 1964, Russell was now free (at least for the most part) to expand upon his creativity as a filmmaker – The Debussy Film’s film-within-a-film format stands out in particular. As with Elgar, Russell tells his story in a similarly straightforward fashion, but unlike that earlier effort, Always on Sunday finds him taking a more laid-back approach to it at the same time.

Whereas Elgar and (in some ways) The Debussy Film centered on the lives of famed composers, Always on Sunday centers on the life of late 19th-century to early 20th-century French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Oliver Reed serves as the film’s narrator (seriously, what a mesmerizing voice), while James Lloyd handles lead acting duties as Rousseau. Annette Robertson (Gaby from The Debussy Film) also lends welcome support as (yes) pint-sized French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), whose voice is dubbed here by an uncredited male actor. The scenario was concocted by Melvyn Bragg, who previously collaborated with director Ken Russell on The Debussy Film.

If I can name one thing that director Ken Russell does really well in Always on Sunday, it would lie in the sincere simplicity of his storytelling. Prior to his flamboyant later films, Russell had continuously proven himself to be a master of subtlety with his early television work at the BBC (1959-1970). This one, Elgar and Song of Summer (my personal favorite) notably demonstrates this aspect. Always on Sunday’s slow but steady pacing debatably resembles Russell’s way of appreciating the finer things in life. One memorable running gag involves Rousseau hauling around one of his paintings around the countryside back and forth in a wagon of sorts. Another involves Rousseau placing one of his paintings in a museum it the hopes of rivaling the work of some of his contemporaries. The action then cuts to some examples via their individual artwork: Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

As is occasionally typical of his work, Always on Sunday sometimes feels like a semi-autobiographical account of it’s director Ken Russell. An early sequence depicting French elitists ridiculing Rousseau’s paintings foreshadowed the hostile relationship between Russell and his critics. At the same time, he sees a little bit of himself in Alfred Jarry (a reported supporter of Rousseau). One such scene comes in the form of Jarry’s irreverent play Ubu Roi – a scathing satire on the bourgeoisie. Another example occurs when one of Rousseau’s neighbors complains to Jarry that his pistol firing (he carries two of them) is endangering her children. Jarry’s response is delightfully insulting – If that should be the case madam, we’d hope you get some new ones, the bedroom’s over there. For some odd reason, I can’t help but feel that Russell would applaud his response.

Capturing all of Elgar’s simplicity and none of The Debussy Film’s originality, Always on Sunday is like a warmup to director Ken Russell’s subsequent television films. The following year in 1966, he directed an entry for Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and a stand alone (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World). The others were episodes of OmnibusDante’s Inferno in 1967, Song of Summer in 1968 and Dance of the Seven Veils in 1970. Those last four titles (I have not seen Don’t Shoot the Composer) arguably rank as major works on Russell’s resume. Always on Sunday may seem minor compared to them, but as with all of Russell’s films, it is a great one regardless of ranking.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

Here is a link to Part 1 of the film

Here is a link to Part 2 of the film

Here is a link to Part 3 of the film

John Charet’s Take On: The Debussy Film (1965)

According to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline (read here), The Debussy Film was originally intended to be director Ken Russell’s second feature film. Unfortunately, after the critical and commercial failure of his cinematic directorial debut French Dressing from a year earlier, Russell had to abandon this option. Left with no other alternative, he ended up selling it as a film for the BBC arts programme Monitor and the rest was history. Restricted to this period alone (1959-1965), The Debussy Film finishes up as the greatest of all his television films.

As with Elgar, The Debussy Film has director Ken Russell pushing the envelope on what could be allowed within the format of a television program. Unlike that earlier entry though, The Debussy Film is a completely different undertaking altogether. If Elgar played as something akin to a documentary on a beloved artist, then The Debussy Film plays out more like a film-within-a-film about one.

The Debussy Film opens with a filmmaker (Vladek Sheybal) giving directions to a child actor about his subject – He’s known hundreds of people in his life but because of quarrels and because a war was going on, there’s hardly anyone at the funeral. Furthermore, he states that France is about to collapse, and hardly anybody notices the death of a man who has now taken to signing himself “Musician of France”. His wife is there, of course, and Chouchou, his daughter, but hardly anyone else. Now, when the carriage gets there, to the end, I want you to run out into the road, look at the wreaths for the name, run back, and say to your mother, “it seems he was a musician”. Not too long afterwards, we cut to a background artwork painting of the Monitor episode’s subject with the title – The Debussy Film – and it’s subtitle – Impressions of the French Composer. Next, we get photographic stills in the background with voiceover/narration provided by it’s unseen British presenter. Here is what he says in his own words – Claude Debussy, born in poverty in 1862, died friendless in 1918. A film based on incidents in his life, his own words and his relationships – with Gabrielle Dupont, attempted suicide, Lilly Rosalie Texier, attempted suicide, Chouchou, died at the age of 13, Madame Bardac, wife of a wealthy banker, and the man who took most of these pictures, Pierre Louys, pornographer, novelist, photographer.

Beside casting himself in the role of Pierre Louys, the plot’s unnamed film director of this project casts four actors, who either go by the exact names of the characters that they are portraying – Claude Debussy (Oliver Reed) and Madame Bardac (Izabella Telezynska/Isa Taylor) – or at the very least, their nicknames – Gaby (Annette Robertson) and Lily/Lilly (Penny Service). Inevitably, throughout the production, reality (subtly or not so subtly) intertwines with fantasy, as Debussy – the actor – suddenly finds himself immersed in his subject of Debussy – the composer. This becomes clear in his relationships with Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the actresses – versus that of Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the lovers.

As to be expected from all (or at least some) of director Ken Russell’s shoestring works, The Debussy Film effortlessly overcomes every single limitation of it’s low-budget. A good portion of this arises from both Russell and his screenwriting partner Melvin Bragg’s decision to execute the scenario as a film-within-a-film. In addition, the two cleverly (If discreetly) reference Monitor’s use of voiceovers (think of Huw Wheldon’s narration in Russell’s Elgar) by using Vladek Sheybal’s filmmaker character as the occasional narrator of his very own subject.

To some extent, The Debussy Film comes off as an autobiographical/semi-autobiographical account of it’s filmmaker Ken Russell. If my argument is credible, then the plot’s nameless director could possibly serve as Russell’s fictionalized alter ego. Similar to him, Russell has always been fascinated by the lives of famous composers. Although the fictionalized character’s religious affiliation is never made clear, Russell (a converted Roman Catholic himself) is throughly fascinated with Catholicism like he is. Two notable sequences here include the filming of a woman being shot with arrows (a la Saint Sebastian) and another filmed one involving a mob of priests and nuns holding a life-size statue of both Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. Aside from statues, other examples come in the form of artwork throughout.

When it comes to individual set pieces, The Debussy Film features some of the most imaginative sequences that director Ken Russell ever conceived for television. Some of them are elegantly staged like the previously mentioned ones between Claude Debussy and his women (Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac); both within-and-out of the film-within-the-film. On the contrary, the climactic scene plays out like something from a German Expressionist horror film. Last, but not least, we get an inspired montage sequence set to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. In it, two people swing dance to Valkyries amid a mock duel between two actors. A push broom, a cane, toy dart guns and even hand-to-hand combat via (rather humorously) slapping are the weapons of choice. The action frequently cuts back-and-forth; from the aforementioned staged fight to two women playing with bumper cars at a carnival and then back again. The image of a cat quickly, albeit cartoonishly, jumping up and down – complete with sound effects – gives it an absurdist touch. With the exception of that last one, all of these scenes (as in Elgar) are accompanied by Debussy’s (the composer that is) musical compositions.

Elgar might have established Ken Russell as a fully fledged director, but The Debussy Film elevated him to that of a master filmmaker. The Debussy Film may not be my personal favorite of his television work (that honor goes to Song of Summer), but for his penultimate Monitor entry, Russell could not have delivered a better climax.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

P.S. since I could not find part 1 of this film on youtube, I had to go to dailymotion.com to find it. Here is a link below to part 1

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x319p25

 

Here is a youtube link to part 2

 

Here is a youtube link to part 3

 

Here is a youtube link to part 4

 

Here is a youtube link to part 5

 

Here is a youtube link to part 6

John Charet’s Take On: Elgar (1962)

Along with Always on Sunday, Elgar may be the most accessible of director Ken Russell’s television documentaries/docudramas on famous historical artists during his years at the BBC (1959-1970). Far from damning it with faint praise though, I am actually lauding Elgar as the perfect one for viewers to start with.

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 him; 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.

Like all of director Ken Russell’s television films, Elgar is a masterpiece of both form and content. Unlike a majority of his later work, Elgar sticks merely to the facts. At first glance, this approach may seem shockingly reverential for diehard Russell fans like myself. Fortunately, this fear is more than 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. Russell’s use of dissolves and voiceovers evokes legendary American filmmaker Orson Welles back-to-back masterpieces of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). 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.

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 with him (Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch), Russell (like Elgar) was professionally self-taught. Even though this can’t 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 have ever been truly appreciated by the majority of critics. As of 2019, Women in Love serves as the only film of his to have earned a spot on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list. While far from completely alike, Elgar and Russell both came off as reclusive (or semi-reclusive) artists, who were actually gentle at heart. Despite the way he is often portrayed in the press (read here), which include, but not limited to, his appearance on Big Brother, 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.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (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

John Charet’s Take On: Ken Russell at the BBC (1959-1970) – An Introduction

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.