I just recently saw Crimes of Passion at the Florida Film Festivals 25th anniversary presentation of it and it made me rewatch many of Russell’s films. The man is one of the greatest visual directors in the history of cinema and almost no one acknowledges this. Critics who gush over Baz Lurman’s sentimental appropriations of Russell’s style in Moulin Rouge still pretend like he the British Master doesn’t exist. The Devils, Music Lovers, Mahler, Tommy and yes Lisztomania are among the greatest achievements in film and his other prominent 70s work (the Boyfriend and Savage Messiah) are pretty close. I truly believe that years of bad reviews from critics who weren’t ready to watch these outrageous films carefully ( the one exception being the great critic Ken Hanke) has made many people accept that Russell is a hack without ever seeing his work. One look at almost any image from one of his films on You Tube should make everyone as incensed as I am not so much about the lack of love but about the fact that of all the films I mentioned above, only Tommy is available in a proper DVD release! Warner Bros has restored both the Devils and Lisztomania but who knows when they will be released for the public ( at least Lisztomania is coming out in he UK in May no such plans for the Devils). That a filmmaker of this stature should be so ignored is one of the great tragedies in film.
I was an early fan of Ken Russell. After his brilliant short bio-pics done for BBC of the likes of Delius and Elgar, I avidly followed his film career. I thought his version of Women in Love very apt and an excellent adaptation – well-acted and well executed. I missed a few of his next films, then caught Mahler. I went with a friend to see this who was then thoroughly immersed in Mahler. Both of us thought the film started off well, and then got progressively more bizaare. There were some great visuals in the film, but Russell’s tendency toward self-indulgence and kitsch became all too apparent in the Brunnhilde as a Nazi and Mahler as a Jew scene. Russell’s tasteless and trite excesses spoiled what was, on many levels, a beautiful film. When I saw Tommy, the excesses kind of worked, especially in the wonderful acid queen sequence, and Russell’s and the Who’s vision seem well-matched. So far, so good. Listzomania, with the Who’s Daltrey worked in bits, but seem to have large moments of typical Russell excess and tastlessness. I followed him still through Crimes of Passion, Altered States, Gothic, Aria, Salome’s Last Dance, and finally completely gave up on him in Lair of the White Worm.
What spoiled so many of these films for me were Russell’s incessant need to try to ‘shock’ and be ‘artsy’ when it really wasn’t called for, and just became excess. It was too bad, because he had a great visual imagination and the ability to get at the heart of the matter in his earlier work. Rainbow was a return to early form, but by then, I had ended my fascination with Russell. He seemed to have had great potential, but made very poor choices, in my opinion, in execution. It’s all right to try and shock the bourgeoise, but if it gets in the way of dramatic truth and execution, it just becomes parody – and boring. Too much of Russell’s work just seemed to be a parody of what an ‘art film’ should be. His excesses and bad taste spoiled what could have been a great career. The only remaining film I would like to see of his that I missed, is The Devils – where the story itself deserves the excess he is so famous for in his films. I’ll see that when it gets released. I will also give The Music Lovers a try – but expect it will be much more about Russell than about Tchaikovsky (I have seen a bit of it already).
So far I have only seen “The Lair of the White Worm” and I absolutely loved it. One of my many favourite horror films.
Well, Russell does have a following, even if his name doesn’t tend to crop up much compared with young guns today. I thought his documentary on Elgar in 1962 was superb, Women in Love was fine, but i agree with Bob, he became too self-indulgent and excessive; so whereas The Devils has a cult following- British critic Mark Kermode loves it- it wasn’t my cup of tea at all. Of course this is all down to personal taste.
I liked the video of Nikita for Elton (who of course gave one of cinema’s towering performances in Tommy)- as pop videos go, it did its job and helped increase the popularity of the name, but certainly wasn’t typical of Russell’s film-making.
Yes, a bit underrated and forgotten. The Music Lovers is simply a masterpiece, the last scene in the mental hospital makes you cry. That is my favorite Ken among films by him I’ve seen.
‘From the genius and the madness of Ken Russell’ was a sort of a tagline for his Altered States at the times of its release. I have seen this film a few times and also recently bought it Mahler, also, is supposed to be really cheap ….but not really good. Maybe Ill check that out The Music Lovers , Ill HAVE to check out now, Dan, and then Ill follow it with Elgar, Holst and Bruckner that I already have /haven’t seen yet Apparently there’s even a Treasure Island TV-movie by him
As Dan already flagged somewhere else….. everyone should be aware of
“Ken Russell at the BBC” (Region 1!!!!!!) an “extra-ordinary” dvd box-set of three DVDs. Length: 477 mins containing
- The Debussy Film (according to someone the best entry and influenced by Fellini’s 81/2 …!?!)
- Always on Sunday (on Henri Rousseau)
- Isadora Duncan
- Dante’s Infermo (on Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
- Song of Summer (I ve seen this, there’s an incredible performance by the Northern Irish actor Max Adrian who played the character of the english composer Frederick Delius , Adrian was also part of the cast in The Music Lovers)
“The Devils” is the greatest political film ever made.
I don’t know if you were aware that both Kens (Russell & Hanke) were in attendance at that screening last week.
Hanke regaled me last night with a hilarious account – course by course – of the mostly inedible nouvelle cuisine $175 a plate dinner that preceeded the showing.
>>Too much of Russell’s work just seemed to be a parody of what an ‘art film’ should be.<<
And who’s to say that’s not what he intended? Russell is notorious for putting on interviewers, who not his audiences, too? I recall an interview in FANGORIA (I think) around the time of WHITE WORM where he noted he had been at work on a script for DRACULA but couldn’t work out where the joke (yes, the joke) was. And by the time he’d figured it out, the Coppola version came out & scotched Russell’s production. That there’s a joke at the heart of Russell’s films was a revelation for me & I re-evaluated them based on that. Maybe I’m on the wrong track, but the more outrageous ones immediately worked better for me.
Again, I may be wrong, but I doubt Russell’s “excesses” are things he works at; I suspect they come naturally. They are the way he “sees” things, just as Picasso paints the way he “sees” things. One really needs to look at Russell’s films – especially the biographies – as Russell’s reaction to the material, not a George Cukor-like presentation of it (don’t get me wrong; I like Cukor, too).
Brecause of the way he pushed envelopes in filmmaking and subject matter through the 1970s and 80s, I can only say – as I’ve said elsewhere: “If Ken Russel hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent him.”
I completely agree with you.
Jimmy: that boxset must be marvelous.
The boxset is marvelous and I hope it’s a sign of things to come. As an earlier poster stated this does come down to personal taste and i understand some of the criticisms of Russells work. I just think that some folks would appreciate his excesses more on a second viewing where his intentions which are never to shock, would be more clear. Hanke’s book is also a huge help.
No I didn’t know that Ken Hanke was there! I would have had him sign the book if I had known. Too bad.
The thing I like most about the Music Lovers is that it most definitely is more about Russell than about Tchaikovsky. Too many biopics attempt a dry desciption of facts about there subject and they still don’t capture the essence. It’s important to note that Russell wasn’t being sloppy in his biopics, he knew al the facts rather he chose to tell the subjects story in the way he felt would best represent his take on them, thereby eschewing the phony idea of “objectivity” which frankly bores and offends me and others. The only other filmmakers I can think of offhand who have created biopics as exciting are Peter Watkins with Edvard Munch and the recent Dylan piece by Todd Haynes.
Also, I don’t really care if Russell gets an honorary oscar or whatever, i just want the films to be released.
Mike: I have to agree with you that I would rather see a Russell type of biopic than any kind of straight-forward example, because he is at least trying to be creative. I guess the fact that, as you say, they are much more about Russell than their subject, is what ultimately bothers me. Still, he does try to get under the surface of his subjects, and sometimes this is effective and revealing.
Harry: I can see where this idea that Russell is purposefull being mischievious in his films and toying with the facts does help to explain some of his ‘liberties’. I will just say that sometimes these ‘jokes’ work for me and sometimes they don’t. I thought some of his exaggerations in Mahler, which I have mentioned, don’t work, because they tend to trivialize the subject. This type of clowning around might work for another type of character, but I am afraid for Mahler – perhaps the most serious and emotive of all composers – it just seems a bit silly. That is why I avoided The Music Lovers, but I will now give it a try.
I realized, when posting above, that I have yet to see Altered States. Saw the great clip on our favorite frames thread recently and knew I hadn’t seen it. Another one to watch. I don’t think you could go wrong with the Russell boxed set that Jimmy mentions as a good introduction to what is best in Russell. One thing this thread proves is that Russell definitely deserves some recognition for what he did do, and how he expanded film visually – which is what I most admire in him – even if he ticks me off occassionally.
Agree that Ken Russell doesn’t get nearly the recognition he deserves. One of the biggest problems is that, for some reason, most of his masterpieces have never seen the light of day on DVD (at least in the U.S.).
The Boyfriend? The Music Lovers? Mahler? The Rainbow? The Devils? – As far as I know, these films have NEVER been released (except for Mahler which only saw a very limited release in pan & scan format with a horrible transfer). Even the transfer of his released works such as Lair of the White Worm was awful.
I don’t know of any plans for Blu-Ray releases either.
The end result is that Russell has been forgotten down a dark memory hole. Most people’s exposure to him only consists of Altered States, Lair of the White Worm and Crimes of Passion (and maybe Gothic) – and even these works have not been presented in their best light.
Forgot to add Tommy to the few Ken Russell films that have been released on DVD and that people have been exposed to – but I happen to think its one of his lesser works.
I think most people see Tommy as a long music video because it inspired so many of them but if you watch it repeatedly i think you’ll find it’s visually quite rich. Try looking at it with the sound off for a bit just to drink in the power of Russell’s vision.
>>Try looking at it with the sound off<<
My favorite way. Cannot stand the music, but visually it’s one of his richest films.
>>I don’t know of any plans for Blu-Ray releases either.<<
Hell, WB has no intentions of releasing any of them in any format, no matter what they might say.
During the recent WB online chat, it was stated that if a director told them they wanted their titles released, WB would license them to Criterion. I passed that on to Ken H who passed it on to Ken R who said, " But I have told them I want them released."
>>I thought some of his exaggerations in Mahler, which I have mentioned, don’t work, because they tend to trivialize the subject. This type of clowning around might work for another type of character, but I am afraid for Mahler – perhaps the most serious and emotive of all composers – it just seems a bit silly.<<
Cripes, Russell has guyed the Pope (in LISZTOMANIA) and portrayed Wagner as a rampaging Frankenstein Monster / SS Trooper …
I’m sure he’s made fun of god somewhere along the line (just can’t recall a specific instance) …
Given MAHLER’s lack of availability I’m not sure what you might be referring to, but my memory is that Russell’s most outrageous jibes are mostly directed aginst the Nazis (I’m not sure why, but he has a thing about them).
Gad, I’d like to see MAHLER again. My memory (from the edited PBS showing) is that it was – at the time – one of my favorite KR films.
Here, btw, is a link to Ken H’s blog on the Florida festival:
Does anyone know if all Cyberhome DVD players play PAL DVDs? I really want to order the Lisztomania DVD coming out May 4.
I think Criterion will eventually find a place in their home for this guy. I personally liked “Whore.”
Just seen The Boy Friend, one of the weirdest movies ever made; really liked it. Twiggy is the sweetest woman ever lived!
Yeah Dan, that one is probably his most underrated of his early 70s period. Most people just describe it as a Busby Berkely parody but i’m glad you noticed the bizarre aspects of the film. I’m curious, did you see it on VHS?
>>I’m curious, did you see it on VHS?<<
Gad, I hope not! If ever a film required the full widescreen frame …
I love, too, that this film (if we are to believe Russell – not always a wise choice) came about by way of one of Russell’s “put-ons.” After making THE DEVILS, an interviewer asked him what he was going to tackle next and, as a joke, he said he’d like to do THE BOY FRIEND. Next thing he knew, Warners was ringing him up saying they’d secured the rights and when did he want to start production.
It would seem at one time that WB valued both him & THE DEVILS …
I’ve seen a TV registration! (the quality is not great, but it is the only thing I found)
It was on LD. Fortunately I have a friend who made me a DVD from that.
I was a huge fan of Russell when I was younger, and it took me many years to track down every one of his feature films. It’s all behind me now, but out of all his films, The Music Lovers and The Devils still really stand out for me. I also grew to really like Lisztomania – a truly demented piece of filmmaking, but one that eventually becomes rather addictive!
I really liked the 3 films he made for Vestron in the late 80s – Lair of the White Worm, Salome’s Last Dance and, especially, The Rainbow.
Of the things that gave me the most trouble to track down – Savage Messiah is very, very good, while French Dressing is pretty forgettable.
He’s always been considered uncool, but I think it’s a pity he never got anything like the recognition he deserved… his poorer work gave his critics too much to work with, and they could never see past it.
Granted he made some terrible films in the 90s (Dogboys, Mindbender…), but Ken really did make some gems in the previous three decades.
It’s mind boggling…THE DEVILS is an unbridled masterpiece.
I must confess to not having seen The Rainbow as it is hard to track down but Salome’s Last Dance is one of my favorites and i like Lair. I recently watched Prisoner of Honor, a TV movie he did for HBO in the 90’s and while it is restrained Russell it is definitely worthy of his reputation. I haven’t seen Dogboys, Mindbender or the Fall of the Louse of Usher but I don’t think i want to as even his most ardent admirers have suggested that they are unfortunate embarrasments. He has been trying to mount a production of Moll Flanders for years now and it would be great if he could somehow create one more Masterpiece so that these more recent works don’t become his lasting legacy.
He keeps plugging way on some project or other. He directed a play in NYC last fall & (though I’m not sure it’ll be released commercially) a film on Bodica with the University of Wales students (I think this may have been shown as part of the Florida festival). FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER … I think if you’re a Russell fan you’ll eat it up; of not, beware. But then I discovered recently that it seems KR disappoints me when he’s not being outrageous; I caught up with his LADY CHATTERLY & caught myself thinking that it was so normal that anyone could have directed it. Admittedly it sufferes from being conceived as a feature and then beinge expanded to a 4-hour mini-series at the 11th hour, but it took me aback to realize that I approach KR’s work looking for the outrageous touches …
From what i’ve seen of Lady Chatterly it seems like it is clearly Russell, just in the restrained mode he seems to favor with all his D.H. Lawrence adaptations. I know most people believe Women in Love to be restrained because it is an early work but it is actually more serene than much of his BBC output or Billion Dollar brain for that matter so I think the lack of outrageous touches in Chatterly may have more to do with the way he approaches Lawrence than with a loss of passion.
I saw the Bodica film at UCF and it was…interesting. He made it in 4 days so you can’t expect much. I may have to look into LOUSE once I get ahold of proper versions of the masterpieces, but what I’ve seen on Youtube makes me wary.
Just managed to finally see The Devils (1971 – in a poor copy) and now know why it is highly tauted by Russell’s admirers. The work is visually stunning and he keeps the narrative flowing smoothly. Oliver Reed gives a tour de force performance of the free-spirited priest at the centre of the drama. Vanessa Redgrave is great as the demonic, repressed head of an order of nuns, who gets caught up in the machinations of church officials to remove and discredit Reed’s character from office. The possession/orgy scene is tame by today’s standards – it has just the right touch of Russell type excess to entice the viewer. You can see how Russell’s own visual imagination influenced other directors of a similar cinematic bent. For example, I can see traces of this influence in Lester’s Four Musketeers (1974) or Forman’s Amadeus (1984) of several years later. This film definitely needs a significant re-release. Derek Jarman did the great production design/sets. This is top-shelf Russell.
Forget Ken Russell, when will KURT Russell get recognized?