The experimental director brought the “creative genius” of classical composers to life on screen.
Tributes have poured in for the English film and opera director Ken Russell, who died on November 27 at the age of 84. Like fellow Brit Tony Palmer, he possessed a remarkable gift for capturing the inner lives of composers and musicians. He was equally at home working with classical music, rock or British folk.
Following a short-lived stint as a ballet dancer, he launched his film career in the 1960s with a series of groundbreaking BBC documentaries on composers including Elgar, Bartòk, Vaughan Williams and Delius, citing the latter, Song of Summer, as the greatest film he ever made. The Debussy Film is one of his earliest experimental projects, with striking imagery reminiscent of a French New Wave classic.
During the 1970s Russell’s style grew bolder and more flamboyant, and he wasn’t afraid to court controversy. Dance of the Seven Veils depicted Richard Strauss in wanton cahoots with Hitler, prompting the Strauss estate to have the film banned. His Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970) explored the Russian composer’s homosexuality at a time in which it wasn’t openly discussed. André Previn conducted the score.
Equally provocative was Russell’s magnum opus Lisztomania (1975), a surreal, anachronistic blend of music genres starring The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt. Drawing parallels between Romantic decadence and the age of modern excess, the virtuoso composer-pianist and the most photographed celebrity of the 19th-century is portrayed as a sex-addicted rock-star. Russell worked again with Daltrey, alongside Elton John, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton, on the film version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy.
The director’s use of music in feature films including the Oscar-winning Women in Love has been widely praised; he commissioned British composer Peter Maxwell Davies to create the scores for The Devils and the musical The Boy Friend, the latter starring Twiggy.
Russell turned his attention to staged opera during the 1980s and early ‘90s, with acclaimed productions of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Florence and Madama Butterfly in South Carolina.
American film director Martin Scorsese has called for a reevaluation of Russell’s films in the wake of his death, praising “his use of music and his understanding of music” and his unique insights into “the lives of the composers themselves.” He named Russell’s Sibelius biopic as a particular favourite.
British actor Ben Kingsley, too, has expressed admiration for the way Russell “brought the creative genius to the screen. You can’t film creative genius because it’s going on inside the person… His films about the great composers were extraordinary.”