Review: Ken Russell – The Great Composers

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Blu-ray. BFI

There are those who say that Ken Russell was most famous as the enfant terrible of British cinema, a rebellious, bloody-minded and deliberately provocative figure who revelled in excess. And yes, he was all that (though unlike many of those people, I’d see those traits as virtues, not vices). But when I think of the career of Ken Russell, I think mostly of a man who had a long obsession with tradition, not sensationalism – a man who’s career seems defined by a fascination with classical music and the men who created it. It’s this interest – this passion, if we are to steal the title of the other recent Russell blu-ray set – that seems to define him more than any tabloid outrage.

Three of his early BBC films about composers are included in this essential BFI set.

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Elgar

The first film in the collection is Elgar, which is much more of a straight forward biographical documentary than his subsequent work – in 1962, the BBC still had very strict rules about how documentaries could be made, and Russell was pushing at the limits with the few reconstructions – his scenes of imagination and reconstruction are all taken from Elgar’s own words (no real flights of fancy here) and the film is very much in a traditional documentary format – narration and archive footage and photographs telling much of the story. Only the scenes of Elgar riding through the countryside as a child atop his pony allow Russell to really flex his creative muscles openly – and these are great, sweepingly dramatic moments that immediately suggest a filmmaker who is going to go on to bigger, grander stories. But while he was certainly held back in the creative approach to the story, Russell still imposed his own view on the film – he admitted that he wanted to rescue Elgar from the flag waving jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory, and he does this well, emphasising the composer’s distaste for the way his music was used to whip up enthusiasm for World War One. How true this actually is remains a bone of contention – there are those who say Elgar was rather less conflicted about the patriotic fervour inspired by his music than Russell suggests (it is, after all, called Land of Hope and Glory – not much restraint there).

The more interesting part of Elgar’s career, and that which Russell seems most fascinated by, is his position as yet another Outsider Artist – for much of his career, Elgar was ignored and struggled to make a living. Russell was always attracted to such characters, and it’s this part of the story than is most interesting.

Ultimately, Elgar is the weakest of the recently released Russell films – it’s too constrained by BBC rules to be anything more than a very well crafted documentary, and Elgar’s life isn’t, in the end, all that interesting.

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The Debussy Film

Things had changed dramatically by 1965, and The Debussy Film might well be one of the most ambitious biographical dramas ever made – it’s certainly one of the most challenging television productions that you’ll ever see. Mixing biography with modern day drama, having his cast playing two sets of characters – sometimes simultaneously – it’s a twisting, fascinating and sometimes frustrating affair, closer in feel to a Godard film – parts of it put me in mind of Godard’s masterpiece Le Mepris for some indefinable reason – and ambitious efforts to film ‘unfilmable’ novels like The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Tristam Shandy, both of which had tackled the difficulties by becoming films about the making of a film based on the novel. Similarly, Russell tells Debussy’s life story by making a film about a director (Vladek Sheybal) who is making a film about Debussy, with Oliver Reed playing the nameless actor playing Debussy.

Within the complex formula, shifting from past to present, fiction to reality with such fluidity that you are often unsure exactly where you are, Russell manages to get a ‘narration’ voice into the film – the director, telling his cast about Debussy’s life – while not being held down by a traditional documentary format. Thus, one of the most telling and tense scenes takes place in a suitably swinging London party, where the Actor (Reed already a brooding, slightly dangerous presence and seemingly channelling more of himself here than in most films) flips off the Kinks vinyl and replaces it with Debussy’s equally brooding music – Debussy’s work often sounds like the impressive score for some 1970s Euro horror or sex film, which is high praise indeed – resulting in his co-star and ex-lover Gaby (Annette Robertson) performing a striptease in protest at the ‘dreary’ music.

The Debussy Film is brilliant – Russell at his most free and imaginative, as much a work of art as anything you will see, and a film that stretches the idea of the biopic as far as it will go.

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Song of Summer

1968’s Song of Summer might seem a step back in comparison – although this is an entirely dramatized biopic, with no sense of documentary left, it is also a very traditional biopic in many ways. Focusing on the final years of composer Frederick Delius, (Max Adrian) it is told from the point of view of Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable), the Scarborough musician and budding composer (he writes music for silent films, leading to a painful first interaction with Delius, who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care who Laurel and Hardy are) who travels to France to work with his hero, now blind and paralysed through syphilis. During his years there, he helps complete unfinished works, but his religious fervour clashes with Delius’ rabid atheism and rants against marriage (despite him being married to the incredibly patient Jelka, played by Maureen Pryor).

Much of this comes directly from Fenby’s own book on Delius, but it’s not an ego trip for the younger character, eager to have his place in the Delius canon acknowledged. Instead, the Fenby character seems like a sponge – and often easy target – for Delius to educate, torment, abuse and ultimately use as his hands and eyes.

When I say that this is a straightforward biopic, don’t mistake that for meaning ordinary. Russell might not go off on flights of fancy here, but then again, he didn’t in many of his best films. It’s not a restrained work – there is no sense of Russell holding back here. But as I said at the start of this review, excess was not what he was always about, and here he tells a compelling, moving story with consummate skill.

These three films – and those on the companion set – are essential viewing, and a much-needed boost to the often maligned reputation of Russell. He was one of our greatest filmmakers, treated abominably from the end of the 1970s by a British film and television industry that drooled over filmmakers who were creative pygmies in comparison. He should have been making films like this right up until the end of his career.

As ever, the BFI disc comes with copious extras, some historical clips about the composers, others about Russell. Best of all are two audio commentary tracks by the director, which are every bit as entertaining and informative as you might expect.

DAVID FLINT

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