This morning’s BBC News Web site has just reported the death of film director Ken Russell at the age of 84. In the history of cinema, Russell’s name will probably always be linked to controversy, whether it involved the male nude wrestling scene in Women in Love or the sacrilegious orgies of The Devils. However, Russell was also a serious music lover with very broad tastes. His imagery for Tommy may be have been over the top. Nevertheless, it was a well-conceived vision of the recording that The Who made that was probably more visually coherent than its source was musically. (Furthermore, as a result of Liam Lynch’s homage to the film in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Russell’s film now holds an undisputed position in rock history.)
Where classical music is concerned, Russell certainly was not afraid of controversy. His treatment of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers was about as outrageous as his approach to Aldous Huxley in The Devils. My initial impression of The Music Lovers was enough to keep me away from Mahler when it was released; but, when I finally saw it on cable a quarter-century later, I was struck by how much of the imagery rang true to the photographs I had seen in my books about Gustav Mahler. Then there was The Secret Life of Arnold Bax, which got me thinking seriously about this composer for the first time.
However, for my tastes the Russell film that most deserves to be remembered is “Vaughan Williams: A Symphonic Portrait,” an hour-long documentary made for The South Bank Show. This film used the nine symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams as a framework for a straightforward biographical summary. There was also a wonderful sequence of Russell leafing through a Vaughan Williams family photographic album and an excellently prepared interview with the composer’s widow Ursula.
One could probably mount a festival of all of the films that Russell made about classical music, and I suspect that such a festival would be an excellent memorial gesture.