Lakes of courage: In praise of Ken Russell’s music films

The Devils director Ken Russell was not one for stuffy biopics or timid musicals. His many music movies are some of the most outrageous and inventive films of their era, with results that still drop jaws.

Michael Brooke
Updated:

Tommy (1975)

Tommy (1975)

Has there been a British director more obsessed with music than Ken Russell? Alan Parker made more big-screen musicals, Bernard Rose tackled biopics of Beethoven and Paganini, and Mike Figgis even writes his own scores, but none can hold a candle to Russell, whose lifelong passion (his mother once caught him frenziedly dancing naked to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) led to half a century’s restless experimentation with ways of fusing it with film to the mutual advantage of both.

He breathed unforgettably dynamic life into the television documentary in general and the biographical portrait in particular, and established many of the building blocks of the modern music video, not least through his extravagant 1975 adaptation of Pete Townshend’s 1969 rock opera Tommy, which is about to get a big-screen revival as part of the BFI’s Musicals: The Greatest Show on Screen.

Russell’s musical tastes leaned towards the classical end of the spectrum, so Tommy initially seemed like an odd assignment, but it was partly derived from a more personal project that got as far as the script stage in the early 1970s before being abandoned. This was Music Music Music, whose composer protagonist John Fairfax is forced to abandon writing a rock opera called Jesus on Venus in favour of rent-paying advertising jingles.

The quasi-religious fervour surrounding Tommy’s deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball (Roger Daltrey) echoes Jesus on Venus. Elsewhere, his mother Nora (Ann-Margret) is assaulted by various trappings of consumer culture (baked beans, soap) in moments drawn from what Russell described as “a crack-up with all the products associated with [Fairfax’s] jingles […] erupting through the screen and engulfing him in goo”. Many of Russell’s most celebrated (and notorious) set-pieces across his whole career were designed to have a similar psychological effect on the viewer.  

Tommy (1975)

Tommy (1975)

Russell came comparatively late to film, being already past 30 when he received his first professional commission, having previously trained as a dancer and worked as a successful photographer. As luck would have it, a promising amateur film, Amelia and the Angel (1958), was made when the BBC’s Huw Wheldon was looking for new talent to make short documentaries for his groundbreaking Monitor arts magazine strand (1958-65).

Almost from the start, Russell favoured music as a subject, the 10-15 minute length of his earliest pieces working in his favour as imaginative visual treatments were both more eye-catching and less time-consuming than anything excessively verbal. For instance, in his 1959 profile of composer Gordon Jacob, Russell brought Jabob’s New Forest Suite to life, with a delightful sequence involving pigs truffling for acorns.

Other memorable images from his first professional year include a spellbinding performance in a building site by the folk rocker Davy Graham (From Spain to Streatham) and Queen Victoria’s regal bottom testing a chair that played the National Anthem when sat upon (Variations on a Mechanical Theme).

Wheldon was a hard taskmaster with strong views about separating drama and documentary, but his restrictions merely fired Russell’s imagination. Banned from letting an actor play Sergei Prokofiev except in one shot in which he’s reflected in a pool of water (murky and rippling at Wheldon’s insistence), Russell instead delivered an imaginative fusion of purpose-filmed and pre-existing footage. At one point in Portrait of a Soviet Composer (1961), the knights from Eisenstein’s Prokofiev-scored Alexander Nevsky (1938) are confronted by German tanks.

Elgar (1962)

Elgar (1962)

Another 1961 piece anticipated the music video explosion by more than a decade, London Moods, took three contrasting pieces of London-themed music (Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne overture, Christopher Whelen’s London Moods, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony) and illustrated them with apposite visuals – the rapid associative cutting in the Whelen section being particularly witty.

Russell made surprisingly few genuine music promos – a handful for Bryan Adams, Sarah Brightman, Elton John, Cliff Richard and Russell’s lawyer Richard Golub (the latter in gratitude for Golub winning a lawsuit on his behalf) – but he did as much as anyone to establish their visual and conceptual language. Indeed, Tommy is frequently cited alongside Queen’s exactly contemporary ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video as the music promo’s most direct ancestor.

The Debussy Film (1965)

The Debussy Film (1965)

Russell would make many of his most memorable composer portraits for the BBC: Elgar (1962), Béla Bartók (1964), The Debussy Film (1965), Don’t Shoot the Composer (1966), Song of Summer (1968) and Dance of the Seven Veils (1970). All are crammed with eye-catching fusions of music and images: the camera swooping over Elgar’s beloved Malvern Hills, spidery fingers playing Bartók’s ‘night music’ to the intercut accompaniment of nocturnal creatures, Debussy’s decline fused with that of Roderick Usher (the subject of an unfinished Poe-inspired opera), Georges Delerue’s piano burning in reverse motion, the tortuous musical dictation by the blind Frederick Delius to his baffled amanuensis Eric Fenby, and just about every sequence in a self-described “comic strip in 7 episodes in the life of Richard Strauss”. This was Dance of the Seven Veils, which provoked outrage both in Parliament and among Strauss’s own family, who exercised their copyright over the composer’s music to prevent its circulation for nearly 50 years (it finally expires on New Year’s Day 2020).

The Music Lovers (1970)

The Music Lovers (1970)

Cut loose from the BBC, Russell took his musical obsessions to the big screen. After his third cinema feature, Women in Love (1969), became an international hit, he allegedly pitched a biopic of Tchaikovsky to United Artists as “a film about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac”, a promise met via the scene in which the composer (Richard Chamberlain) is sexually assaulted by his newly-wed wife Antonina (Glenda Jackson). However, The Music Lovers (1970) also contains several dynamic visualisations of Tchaikovsky’s music, including the bombastic 1812 Overture. Chamberlain’s performance of the First Piano Concerto was so convincing that Russell defied anyone to claim that he wasn’t playing it for real.

The Boy Friend (1971)

The Boy Friend (1971)

The sprightly and colourful The Boy Friend (1971) adapted Sandy Wilson’s 1954 musical into three different worlds: a cash-strapped theatrical troupe putting on a musical, the musical itself, and the various characters’ dreams, for which Russell delved deeply into the visual and rhythmic vocabulary of classic Hollywood musicals (Busby Berkeley looms particularly large). 

Mahler (1974) is generally regarded as Russell’s finest big-screen composer biopic, at least as much a psychological as musical study of Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) as he’s beset by often nightmarish flashbacks from his life while trying to salvage his marriage.

Made immediately after Tommy, and also starring Roger Daltrey, Lisztomania (1975) confronted sometimes appalled audiences with lines like “Oh, piss off, Brahms!”, Liszt’s gigantic erection being turned into a maypole (and then guillotined), a vampiric Wagner (Paul Nicholas) feasting on Liszt while the latter originates the famous Tristan und Isolde chords, and Ringo Starr as a Liverpudlian Pope.

But it’s also the purest distillation of Russell’s flamboyant essence: as the music critic Jessica Duchen rightly observed: “Nobody can create great art without courage, and Russell had lakes of it. Liszt and Wagner, too, were never genteel artists; their art involved many human dilemmas, but it was never about being polite. That’s why Lisztomania says more about the inner worlds of high romanticism than a month of prim, proper and sensible documentaries ever could.”

Lisztomania (1975)

Lisztomania (1975)

Lisztomania was Russell’s last overtly musical feature (although he later helmed a  segment of Don Boyd’s 1987 opera film Aria, depicting Puccini’s ‘Nessun dorma’ as the jewel-encrusted fantasy of a car-crash victim being prepared for surgery), but from the late 1970s Russell alternated cinema projects with a return to television, thanks to his friend and former screenwriter Melvyn Bragg (The Debussy Film, The Music Lovers) being in charge of ITV’s South Bank Show. These commissions tackled similar topics to his earlier BBC pieces, although Russell himself was often centre stage, an acknowledgement that he’d become as much of a marketing hook as his subjects.

Beside films about Vaughan Williams (1984), Anton Bruckner (1990), Arnold Bax (1992) and a second Elgar piece (2002), he made the more personal Ken Russell’s View of ‘The Planets’ (1983) and Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music (1988), the latter a cornucopia of extravagant Quantel Paintbox visual effects, enthusiasms and prejudices – at one point Russell hangs up the phone while saying “that’s either an obscene call or the beginning of Michael Tippett’s Fourth Symphony”. In a more sedate and reflective vein, Channel 4 broadcast Ken Russell In Search of the English Folk Song (1998), as much autobiography as a voyage of discovery.

Mahler (1974)

Mahler (1974)

Although dictated as much by funding opportunities as by personal inclination (he certainly didn’t intend 1991’s Whore to be his final cinema film), there’s something fitting in the way that Russell’s career came full circle, not least because although his feature films had a much higher profile (especially internationally), he often felt greater personal satisfaction with his television projects, to the point of telling biographer John Baxter, “If I could feel that films I did for television were shown all over the world at frequent intervals, I’d probably never make a so-called feature film again.”

Russell’s argument was that it’s easier to be creatively spontaneous when you don’t have a hundred-strong crew hanging on your every word, and also easier to get backing for more adventurous and personal projects. Indeed, had Russell’s big-screen breakthrough not coincided with major studios being prepared to fund wayward auteurs like him and Nicolas Roeg because of panicky uncertainty about surviving in a post-Easy Rider commercial landscape, we might not have had the likes of The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, Mahler or Lisztomania at all, and the history of the British musical film would be much the poorer. 

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