Ken Russell, Rest in Peace

Ken Russell in 2008

English movie director Ken Russell died on November 27th. We at mourn his passing, and we gaze in retrospective admiration at his work.

Russell made a specialty out of directing movies about great composers. Elgar (1962) was his first in this line; a docudrama long before that term was invented, dramatizing the life of England’s own Edward Elgar. The BBC’s website says that this was “one of the most popular films of its kind ever shown on TV.”

But let’s say a few words about his life before the movies: Russell was born in England, in Southampton, in July 1927. He seems to have spent a lot of time at the movies with his mother, Ethel, née Smith, because his father was perpetually angry. Mother and son both found the theatre a refuge.

Russell said that one of the movies he saw early in life that influenced his later work was Die Nibelungen (1924), a work directed by famed expressionist Fritz Lang. That seems about right.

In the 1950s, before he broke into the movie business himself, though, Russell was a still photographer, which also seems in retrospect quite apt. His work in this capacity helped him secure a job at the BBC, where he worked through the 1960s, making documentaries on the arts, including as we’ve noted Elgar (1962), as well as The Debussy Film (1965). It was called “The Debussy Film” because it was structured not as a story about Claude Debussy, but as a story about somebody making a movie about Debussy.

Russell and the 1970s

Perhaps Russell’s single most controversial movie – denounced in many quarters for the way it mixed historical fact with invention – The Music Lovers (1970), focused on the life and loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Russell himself described it in a single sentence as “the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac.” (The composer, played here by Richard Chamberlain, was the former, and Glenda Jackson, a wonderful actress at the top of her form, played the latter.)

Melvyn Bragg wrote the screenplay, based on a book by Catherine Drinker and Barbara von Meck called Beloved Friend.

The year 1975 saw two of Russell’s masterpieces: Lisztomania and The Who’s Tommy. Lisztomania actually features Roger Daltry, of The Who, as the composer Franz Liszt. Other rock stars appeared: Ringo Starr, notably, played the Pope, who banned a marriage between Liszt and his beloved, Princess Carolyne of St Petersburg. Ringo shows up at about :57 in this YouTube clip.

There was also room in the capacious casting for Rick Wakeman, of prog-rock band Yes. Wakeman played an even greater eminence than the Pope. He played a god. Specifically he portrayed Thor, the god of thunder! The scene you’ll see if you click that link is also homage to every movie ever made that involved Viktor Frankenstein’s laboratory. At any rate, if the last two clips don’t give you a taste for Russell’s work, and the way he saw the music he loved, then I fear nothing else will.


Perhaps not even Tommy. But let’s delve into it anyway. This was a concept album by The Who long before it became a movie. It was that group’s fourth album, released in 1969, and the phrase “rock opera” was invented to cover this then-unique creation. According to critic Jacob Hoye (and just about anyone else who has composed such lists) it is among the greatest albums ever produced. Credit for the first staged performance goes to Richard Pearlman, then director of the Seattle Opera, which put it on in that city in 1971.

The plot is this: A British Army Captain goes missing and is thought dead, before his son is born. Years later, Captain Walker does return home, but his wife has in the meantime found a lover. The two men confront one another, and one of them dies (though the different incarnations of this story differ on who kills whom.) The trauma leaves Captain Walker’s son, Tommy, psychosomatically deaf and blind.

As Tommy grows, various incidents mark and mould him: a prostitute known as the Acid Queen introduces him to sex and drugs; his Uncle Ernie molests him; he develops a magical agility at pinball.

One day, suddenly and inexplicably, Tommy’s sight and sound return to him, and the apparently miraculous cure makes him a celebrity, even a messianic figure. It all ends badly, though, as his followers reject him.

So the story and the music both had a history before Russell put his mark on them. But he did put his mark. There was plenty of the Russellian flamboyance in the movie – it made a natural match with the manner of The Who, after all. There is that strange shot of the Southsea Pier in flames, just for an example.

The Southsea Pier is what the name suggests – it is a pier on the southern coast of England, originally designed for the use of ferry boats traveling to and from the Isle of Wight, converted in a vacationers’ spot in the Victorian age. Russell would have known it from his earliest days, and as he once explained the scene, the pier “was typical of many such structures built in Victoria’s reign to grace our seaside resorts. For the price of a few pennies, holiday makers could imagine they were on a cruise, enjoying all the amusements to be found on an ocean liner” – without the bother of actually going anywhere.

So setting it aflame in the context of his movie had some great resonance for him.

There was a lot more to Russell’s career than the points we’ve been able to touch on here. There was Valentino (1977), Altered States (1980), Women and Men (1990)…. In 2002 Russell revisited the subject of one of his earlier triumphs, the life of Edward Elgar, with a 50 minute film called “Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle.” The general consensus seems to be that the first of his Elgar films was by far the better.

Russell will be missed.

Let us conclude our inadequate tribute by returning to Tommy. Here is Elton John’s big moment.


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