If Song of Summer (BBC, tx. 15/9/1968) reached for the sublime, Dance of the Seven Veils (BBC, tx. 15/2/1970) aims straight for the ridiculous – and ridicule was Ken Russell’s intention, as the programme’s subtitle ‘A comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949’ makes clear. Comfortably his most extreme television film, its broadcast was preceded by a warning about its violent content, though it still caused widespread outrage.
Russell’s composer biopics were usually labours of love. This was the opposite: he regarded Strauss’s music as “bombastic, sham and hollow”, and despised the composer for claiming to be apolitical while cosying up to the Nazi regime. The film depicts Strauss in a variety of grotesquely caricatured situations: attacked by nuns after adopting Nietzsche’s philosophy, he fights duels with jealous husbands, literally batters his critics into submission with his music and glorifies the women in his life and fantasies.
Later, his association with Hitler leads to a graphically-depicted willingness to turn a blind eye to Nazi excesses, responding to SS thugs carving a Star of David in an elderly Jewish man’s chest by urging his orchestra to play louder, drowning out the screams. Unexpectedly, Strauss is credited as co-writer, which was Russell’s way of indicating that every word he uttered on screen was sourced directly from real-life statements. —BFI
British director Ken Russell started out training for a naval career, but after wartime RAF and merchant navy service he switched goals and went into ballet. Supplementing his dancing income as an actor and still photographer, Russell put together a handful of amateur films in the 50s before being hired as a staff director by the BBC. Russell made a name for himself (albeit a name not always spoken in reverence) during the first half of the ‘60s by directing a series of iconoclastic TV dramatizations of the lives of famous composers and dancers. And if he felt that the facts were getting in the way of his story, he’d make up his own — frequently bordering on the libelous. If he had any respect for the famous persons whose lives he probed, it was secondary to his fascination with revealing all warts and open wounds.
A film director since 1963, Russell burst into the international consciousness with 1969’s Women in Love, a hothouse version of the D.H. Lawrence novel. No director… read more
Hung, drawn and quartered. The subtitle says it all: a comic strip that stamps, crushes and incinerates a composer's life (and more unfairly) his music. An interesting bridge between the more even tempered BBC Monitor films and baroque features that sandwich around this hatchet job. As with Dante's Inferno a couple films earlier, It's a sporadically enjoyable series of vignettes that display immense visual imagination but become diminished by a less than coherent sense of narrative making the point with visual aplomb if not total verisimilitude. A fiery spectacle nevertheless. Worth checking out is the spoof Russell sequence – The Life of Pablo Casals - from The Goodies episode entitled The Movies (1975), complete with maniacal cellist on fire taunted by a lascivious nun performing a striptease - it could be an out-take from this film!