Ken Russell: Musical Mythmaker

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This semiannual column presents reviews of significant video releases of interest to the field of music and to music libraries, as well as occasionally briefly noting other interesting titles. All genres of music in all video formats will be covered, with a preference given to those in DVD. All Web sites accessed 28 May 2009.

No film director has made as many films about classical music as Britain's Ken Russell. After joining BBC's arts program Monitor in 1959, replacing John Schlesinger, who left to make feature films, Russell went on to make groundbreaking, often controversial short films about composers and other musical topics, as well as art and literary topics, before launching a long and even more controversial career in feature films, which includes Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), Altered States (1980), Crimes of Passion (1984), and Gothic (1986). A true auteur he also writes or co-writes most of his films. The DVD release of four early music-related films as part of the six-film Ken Russell at the BBC (BBC Video 3000017038 [2008]; DVD) provides an opportunity to witness the development of this distinctive artist. Considering these early efforts more than forty years after they were first televised also sheds new light upon Russell's subsequent work.

Filmmakers, especially in Hollywood, have always been fascinated by the romance of classical music composers. But until Russell came along, these biopics were too worshipful, often whitewashing their subjects, as with such examples as The Great Waltz (1938), with Fernand Gravey as Johann Strauss; A Song to Remember (1945), with Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand; Song of Love (1947), with Paul Henreid and Katharine Hepburn as Robert and Clara Schumann, and Robert Walker as Johannes Brahms; and Song without End (1960), with Dirk Bogarde as Franz Liszt. Anyone familiar with the subjects, these performers, and the lavish production values of the time can imagine almost blow-by-blow accounts of the films without seeing them, though Wilde actually looks more like Beethoven. Some European efforts, as with Abel Gance's Un grand amour de Beethoven (1937), while romanticized, were at least less predictable.

Taking slow steps at first and tackling subjects about whom he had passionate interests, Russell broke away from this reverential, gauzy approach with a vengeance, offering warts-and-all portraits, though some have complained he has provided too many warts. In Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography, John C. Tibbetts does not exaggerate when he claims that Russell made the first adult musical biopics. (1) According to Joseph Horowitz, "only Stanley Kubrick, among major contemporary filmmakers, treats music with something like the respect and understanding Russell accords it." (2) Russell's contributions are significant because over the past half century he has given thousands of viewers their first exposure to Debussy, Delius, Elgar, Liszt, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and others. It is also interesting to contemplate the similarities between his treatments of these composers and his occasional forays into popular music.

The BBC hired Russell on the basis of three amateur films he made while working as a photojournalist--one of which used a score by Benjamin Britten. His first significant BBC film about a musician was the forty-five-minute Prokofiev: Portrait of a Soviet Composer (1961). Other music-related television films, ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour, not included in Ken Russell at the BBC are Variations on a Mechanical Theme (1959), about musical instruments; Guitar Craze (1959), about folk musician Davy Graham; Gordon Jacob (1959); Marie Rambert Remembers (1960), about the ballet star; The Miners' Picnic (1960), about brass bands; Cranko at Work (1960), about choreographer John Cranko; The Light Fantastic (1960), a look at dance in England; Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (1962); Bartok (1964); Don't Shoot the Composer (1966), about film composer Georges Delerue; The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), about Richard Strauss; The Planets (1983), a look at the solar system inspired by Gustav Hoist; Portrait of a Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1986); Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988); Mephistopheles (1989), the Arrigo Boito work by the Geneose Opera; The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner (1990); The Secret Life of Arnold Bax (1992), with Russell himself as the composer; The Mystery of Dr. …