He is perhaps the most criminally underrated great director of all time. He's earned an Oscar nom, and more early career accolades than many attempting his craft. But thanks to a late in life clash with commerciality, and a stern sense of self-importance, Ken Russell now stands as a pseudo-joke. He remains a great champion of his own Englishness, and has often used unusual platforms (Celebrity Big Brother in the UK, for example) to keep his reputation exposed and intact. What many fail to realize however is that there is much more to his legacy than Lair of the White Worm, or the Who's Tommy, or naked wrestling (look it up). Indeed, at one time, no one tackled the artist biopic with more flair and verve than he. Thankfully, the digital format is now allowing everyone an opportunity to see this early Russell at work - and if anyone ever doubted it before, Ken Russell at the BBC argues for a director of unfathomable ability and timeless talent. It's one of the year's best sets.
Prior to becoming an international star on the heels of Women in Love, Ken Russell worked almost exclusively in television. Like the classic hour long dramas of the '50s, the BBC often allowed artists to express themselves in ways that, today, would seem self indulgent and excessive. Over the course of a decade, Russell tackled many intriguing subjects, including biographies of famous people and influential masters. The six films offered here are very representative of his style. Efforts like Elgar and Always on Sunday play like mock-documentaries, Russell relying on recreations and some stock footage to offer a straightforward, factual dissertation. With more complicated works like Debussy, Isadora Duncan, and Dante's Inferno, the filmmaker meshes fiction with anecdotal evidence to create a more esoteric portrait of his subject. In either case, the results are absolutely fabulous. Looking at each one individually, it is clear to see why:
[When this set was originally announced, Russell's infamous take on Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), was announced. Unfortunately, as part of the preview screeners this critic was sent, that title was not included. Emails from individuals who actually own the set confirm its absence.]
Elgar - Episode of Monitor, 1962 (Score: ****)
Plot: The struggle for recognition by Sir Edward Elgar is illustrated.
Review: To hear the tale the way Russell tells it, Elgar's rollercoaster ride to eventual success had many more valleys than hills. Using a clever, nickelodeon like production style, the director drives us through many of the musician's earliest setbacks, leading up to the moment when "Pomp and Circumstance" becomes a kind of second anthem for World War I. A lot of figures featured by Russell exist between the uneasy years of 1890 and 1920, with a move from the Victorian age into the Industrial and the pre-conflict years shaping many a muse. Elgar came to hate his place as a proto-patriot, and we get wonderful illustrations of his growing displeasure with the way his work was treated. As an introduction to Russell's style, Elgar is excellent. When paired up with the next film in the set, we get a clear overview of the filmmaker circa the mid '60s.
The Debussy Film - Episode of Monitor, 1965 (Score: ****1/2)
Plot: A group of actors follow their daring director as he tries to make sense of Claude Debussy's life.
Review: Clearly influenced by Fellini and the classic 81/2, Russell reconfigured the Debussy story as a commentary on actors, onset romances, and the hedonist attraction to art and artists. Oliver Reed, who will show up again as Rossetti in Dante's Inferno, is fantastic as the composer, using his obvious sexual swagger to suggest all manner of pent up emotions and ideas. The main theme that many of these films explore centers on the lack of success, the inability to gain sponsorship, and the various addictions that derive from same. As with many of his subjects, Russell appears very interested in the idea of lust, from both a personal and professional angle. Much of Debussy also finds the fictional director Vladek Sheybal bedhopping with Reed's various conquests, the fame whoring element of said women front and center. It makes for a wonderfully dense and delightful experience.
Always on Sunday - Episode of Monitor, 1965 (Score: ****)
Plot: After the death of his wife, former civil servant Henri Rousseau takes up painting full time.
Review: Coming across as a rarified boob, Russell's version of Rousseau could best be described as an accidental master. Most of his canvases are crackpot versions of reality as seen through the eyes of a na´ve painter, and his loneliness and lack of worldly perspective really amplifies his applied amateurishness. Russell treats this tale as sadly comic, and there are many jokes and jibes as Rousseau's expense. In fact, there is such a lighthearted atmosphere here that when we finally view the artist's best known masterpiece - "The Sleeping Gypsy" - it comes as quite a shock. Indeed, many of Russell's films purposely demystify the legendary, showing them just as capable of flaws and foibles as us mere humans. Indeed, as he continued on in his career, the filmmaker would make such an approach his main raison d'etra. Much of his work here can be seen as the basis for Women in Love, Tommy, and his ultimate classical rock god goof, Listzomania.
Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World (Score: ****)
Plot: Constantly looking for a sponsor for her dance school, the famed artist travels from France to Russia.
Review: As portrayed by Vivian Pickles, Isadora Duncan was an outsized personality barely capable of being reeled in by regular society. Every step along her later troubled career path was marked by the imprint of her own muscled feet in her always moving mouth. From the uneasy embracing of Communism, to her last gasp 'hoping for a payday' tours, she stands as an immovable object driven by an equally unfathomable force. This is perhaps the most disconcerting piece in the entire collection, a harsh criticism wrapped up in moments of the sheer joy in movement and the body's grace. Herself trained as a dancer, Pickles lights up the screen when she's onstage, Duncan's inflated ego disappearing into a series of carefully choreographed interpretations. Still, some might find the constant confrontations and shouting matches tiring. After all, Russell makes it clear that this was one artist who could have had it all had she just kept her mighty yap shut. Because she didn't, however, we see her downfall in all its brazen glory.
Dante's Inferno - Episode of Omnibus, 1967 (Score: ****1/2)
Plot: With his wife sickly and his career stifled, Dante Gabriel Rossetti tries to make a mark with his painting and poetry.
Review: Like the dissertation on Duncan, Russell's look at painter/poet Rossetti and his own personal Hell (a clear allusion to the Dante of Divine Comedy fame) can be tough going at times. His relationship with Elizabeth Siddal is very upsetting, especially when we learn of her terminal illness and Rossetti's mere indifference to it. There is also another woman, a dark haired succubus who seems to bring out the worst in the artist, constantly turning causal outings into turmoil even where situations finally seem settled. As mentioned before, Russell seems obsessed by the way women of the age interacted with men. There is a contemporary twist of course, but the overall interpretation seems wrapped up in an intricate combination of need, nurturing, and novelty. As played by Reed, Rossetti is a ruthless cad, treating everyone with determined disdain. At least in this situation, we see how the personalities of everyone involved influenced the art.
Song of Summer - Episode of Omnibus, 1968 (Score: ****)
Plot: The story of how musician Eric Fenby helped ailing composer Fredrick Delius realize some of his most memorable scores.
Review: The last film here is one of the Russell's more intriguing. Instead of taking on the entire career of Delius, or arguing for the man's place in the paradigm of composers, he offers up a standard musical melodrama, the aging artist using the younger student to finalize his chapter in history. Applying various aural cues (the sound of a gong, recitations in German) as a means of illustrating the ritualized nature of creation, Russell redefines how to approach the concept of art. In all of the works featured here, we barely see the process. Instead, he focuses on the influences - friendships, love, demeanor, decisions, and the social/political implications of the time. Unlike Dante's Inferno, where the man's poetry and paintings are literally everywhere, Delius and Fenby are given little sonic support. But when we hear of the music they made together, it really does deliver an emotional bang.
To call this collection 'superb' would be an understatement. If you ever wondered why Ken Russell remains a highly touted figure in filmmaking (his recent scattershot output aside), these BBC films are excellent motion picture primers. You can see his initial forays into surrealism, his bows to dream and nightmare logic. You can witness his unique way with actors, as well as his synced up sense of Swinging London. Favorites like Oliver Reed and Annette Robertson do brilliant work, showing a kind of passionate realism within their frequently mannered characterizations. While not as eccentric or over the top as his later works, Russell clearly enjoyed the small screen format (the longest film here is 72 minutes) and his compositions and framing are fascinating. After watching all six cinematic statements, one wonders why Russell isn't more widely recognized and revered. It seems that, somewhere along the line, he forgot the captivating and inventive techniques employed here, and simply went with the weird. Ken Russell at the BBC supports the claim that he be considered among the medium's greats.
Captured in an amazing monochrome transfer, the 1.33:1 full screen image here is excellent. Sure, there are some age issues, and a few moments of less than perfect polish, but Russell was clearly capable of great things within a 'filmed for TV' framework. While not as crisp as some might like, the black and white images here are quite astounding.
Sadly, there is not much that can be done with tinny, old school Mono technology. Even forced through two speakers via Dolby Digital 2.0, the flatness of the orchestrations does some of these composers a grand disservice. Still, there's no sense in complaining about such source material, and at least the dialogue is easily discernible.
Both Disc 1 and 2 of this three DVD set have a single bonus feature to offer. First up is a contemporary interview, the director (decked out in a Marlon Brando-like coat and hat) offering up tales of excess and lots of excuses. Russell is a wonderful eccentric and a great storyteller, and the conversation here is a pleasure to listen to. The second offering is a bit of BBC behind the scenes showcasing from the '60s. Featuring a much younger Russell onset, working through blocking and shot selection, it's a nice slice of making-of insight.
This critic must confess - I LOVE Ken Russell. Even at his most silly and self-indulgent, he can be a revelatory artist of great depth and unusual emotion. The opportunity to see these little known early works is like discovering the tomb of an ancient pharaoh. There's a mix of joy, apprehension, and a selfish desire for more, MORE, MORE!!! To that end, Ken Russell at the BBC earns an easy Highly Recommended. In fact, had the DVDs reviewed not been mere check discs (no cover art or packaging offered), the set may have earned the coveted Collector's Edition title. Still, for anyone wanting an introduction to the man, or simply requiring a refresher course in what made/makes him so great, this is the perfect place to start. Russell may be ridiculed for what he stands for now. Viewed through the filter of what he accomplished four decades ago, there is no denying the infinite limits of his talent.