SOUND OFF Special Edition: A Ken Russell Retrospective
Champagne. Soap bubbles. Baked beans. Melted bon-bons. Four images - all part and parcel of perhaps the most famous scene he ever committed to celluloid (which, in this instance, is definitely saying something grand) - that seemingly conjure up so much of the universe of peerless British stage and film director Ken Russell. With or without Ann-Margret in a white leather cat-suit, Russell's TOMMY is one of the most unique and enduring movie musicals of the later half of the twentieth century and his other music-based films provide a plethora of information and insight (not all of it factual and much of it often quite admittedly wrongheaded) - so, for those alone, Russell is due much praise as far as theatre fans are concerned. Yet, with WOMEN IN LOVE, Russell mastered a quite different milieu - that of Victorian sexual politics - and brought the leading lady of that picture to both an Oscar nomination (which Ann-Margret also received for TOMMY) and a win; Glenda Jackson - a frequent Russell collaborator - taking top honors for her work and later re-teaming with Russell throughout her film career. Look no further than Russell's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's SALOME - or even Jackson's cameo in THE BOY FRIEND - for more of their palpable, playful, endlessly enjoyable onscreen rapport. So, too, did Ken Russell give Kathleen Turner and Theresa Russell (no relation) the roles of their careers with CRIMES OF PASSION and WHORE, respectively, and that's to say nothing of his long-standing and loving actor-director relationship with Oliver Reed, whose best work resides in Russell's still-banned Catholicism and exorcism consideration, THE DEVILS. Both an actor's director and a director's director, Russell was always passionately committed to his vision for the potential property and that was both a gift and a curse - as is clear to see in this collection of clips. The eccentricities and excesses may be overwhelming for some, but, over the course of his fifty-year career, Ken Russell broke down barriers and created films that we may enjoy, analyze, debate and cherish for many decades to come.
A pioneering visionary who cut his teeth directing a series of strange short films and oddly riveting BBC MONITOR documentaries in the 1960s - with subjects as diverse as Bartok, Debussy, Elgar, Lotte Lenya and Isadora Duncan covered therein - Ken Russell struck out on his own as a film director in his own right with BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN starring Michael Caine in the waning years of the decade. No other director was better suited to exploring the freewheeling sexuality and taboo-breaking of the Vietnam era than Russell and, in the 1970s, beginning with the Oscar-winning WOMEN IN LOVE, Russell created a sensational series of striking and unforgettable musings on music, love, society and sexuality - THE MUSIC LOVERS, THE BOY FRIEND, SAVAGE MESSIAH, MAHLER, LISZTOMANIA and VALENTINO included. Yet, more than any of his other full-out musicals or music-centric films, his cinematic treatment of The Who's genre-breaking rock opera TOMMY is undoubtedly the gilt-encrusted crown atop the bevy of royal jewels that encrust each and every Ken Russell endeavor - sometimes to the point of overwhelming them - and, even watching the film some thirty-odd years later, it still packs quite a punch. The 1980s were far less kind to Russell critically (he was always far from a critic's darling), though he achieved his biggest mainstream US audience with the release of 1980's ALTERED STATES, starring a then-unknown William Hurt in a film based on a novel by (and a screenplay penned by) none other than Paddy Chayefsky. Following that, Russell teamed up with one of the biggest names in Hollywood - Kathleen Turner - and created one of his most controversial films, CRIMES OF PASSION. While Turner as moonlighting hooker China Blue and Anthony Perkins as a poppers-addicted priest pushed every conceivable button, the film took many years to be properly understood - something that can be said for almost all of Russell's risqué and prescient cinematic ventures. A string of horror films followed - the creepy and campy GOTHIC; the strange and hyper-sexual LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM - and the 1980s came to a close with Russell revisiting the work of D.H. Lawrence, who he had previously adapted (with the help of NORMAL HEART author Larry Kramer, in the case of WOMEN IN LOVE), with THE RAINBOW. The Theresa Russell-starring exploitation comedy WHORE closed out his feature film career in an unceremonious manner, but Russell kept working in television with variable success and his miniseries based on Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER is a wistful and warm gem. To theatre fans, beyond his movie musicals Russell may be best remembered for his over-the-top early music videos for two songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA years before it ever had hit the stage - "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" and the disco-riffic title song. So, too, did Russell create movie musical magic in short form with his highly controversial, edgy and sensationalistic music video for the original Pandora's Box version of the eventual worldwide Celine Dion smash "It's All Coming Back To Me Now". From short films to documentaries to independent productions and big-budget epics, Ken Russell had a career like no other and his films will undoubtedly stand the test of time if only for their fierce originality and commitment to vision. Ken Russell films are certainly not for everyone, but for those of us who are already aware of his cinematic extravagances and filmatic hyperbole, each newly unearthed rough stone hides a glittering, glowing, psychedelic diamond at its core.
So, without further ado, let us sample some of the unmistakable sparkle and pristine sheen that Ken Russell brought to his impossibly idiosyncratic films, today, following his death yesterday at the ripe old age of 84.
WARNING: Many of these clips contain controversial adult content.
1950s & 1960s
Filmed for a mere 100 British pounds, this 1956 short silent film PEEPSHOW is the one of many Ken Russell early-career rarities to find its way to You Tube - and, given today's news, it is just in time.
From more than fifty years ago, here is a mini-documentary created by a young Ken Russell for the BBC 4 news series MONITOR focusing on playwright Shelagh Delaney - perhaps most famous for A TASTE OF HONEY - titled Shelagh Delaney'S SALFORD.
With one of Russell's earliest and most intriguing short films, A HOUSE IN BAYSWATER starts out as a rather ordinary documentary but ends up as something quite surreal - as it should, considering Russell filmed it independently while on leave from MONITOR. The fact that Russell himself lived at this abode in the 1950s adds yet another extra level of intrigue to the proceedings.
Perhaps Russell's most fondly remembered film of them all (at least as far as film critics are concerned), and containing the first of many highly controversial scenes to come, here is WOMEN IN LOVE's infamous nude wrestling scene and Oliver Reed and Alan Bates giving new meaning to fearless acting choices. WARNING: contains nudity.
A towering performance by Oliver Reed as a gallivanting priest and a scenery-chewing tour de force by Vanessa Redgrave as a possessed nun are actually the milder attributes of the quintessential Russell masterpiece, THE DEVILS. To say much more would take away from the exhilaration you feel when you view something this outré for the first time - so, you can watch THE DEVILS (sans the Rape Of Christ sequence and some other unfortunate edits) here. A masterpiece like none other.
Continuing on the Christianity theme, check out this preview clip from the newly remastered edition of Russell's SAVAGE MESSIAH here. This comedic and bizarre semi-biopic examines the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and contains an early-career role for Dame Helen Mirren.
Moving to music - which seemed to be the main theme of Russell's output in the 1970s, along with Christianity - the first of five music-based projects following WOMEN IN LOVE was the Tchaikovsky-inspired historical bio-fantasy THE MUSIC LOVERS, starring Richard Chamberlin.
Next, take a look at the eye-popping visuals of the recently - and pristinely - remastered film adaptation of THE BOY FRIEND, starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune.
Continuing on with composer portraits in his own inimitable style, MAHLER was the next to come in Russell's string of films exploring the lives, loves and careers of musicians - this one ostensibly about Gustav Mahler. You can watch the entire film here - and you surely won't soon forget it!
After that, Ken Russell took on the modern day musical masterpiece of the moment - The Who's seminal rock opera TOMMY. Perhaps Russell's most cohesive and moving film of all, Tommy Remains to this day a classic movie musical for very good reason. It is very 1970s in its sensibilities - but, it's also quite riveting in its own frenzied, harried, surrealistic way. View the incomparable trailer featuring the film's plethora of stars - Tina Turner, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed and The Who included - here.
And, since no Ken Russell clip collection would be complete without this scene, here is what you have all been waiting for: Ann-Margret, champagne, baked beans and gallons of melted bon-bons.
How to possibly follow up that?! Well, next, Russell teamed up again with his TOMMY title star - and lead singer of The Who - Roger Daltry, with LIZSTOMANIA, a film centering on - who else - Franz Liszt. You can watch the little-seen but well-worth-watching bizarre musical ode in its entirety here.
While he had the budget he had always yearned for and a respected Hollywood screenwriter to collaborate with, Ken Russell's lavish treatment of the life, lore and lascivious liaisons of Rudolph Valentino - starring ballerino Rudolf Nureyev and a miscast Leslie Caron - largely failed to ignite. One of his few films to not have a consistent spark, drive and energy of its own, VALENTINO still manages to possesses a few virtues - visually, as the case may be more often than not - as the trailer amply evidences.
Ken Russell finally was afforded the opportunity to create a big Hollywood blockbuster with his adaptation of the Paddy Cheyefsky science fiction novel ALTERED STATES and he found a charismatic young star, William Hurt, for the lead role. Yet, everything did not end up working out as wonderfully as all involved had planned and the film is plagued with plot problems, despite some truly striking and groundbreaking visual sequences.
After that, Russell created what may very well be the most seedy and discomfort-inducting film of his oeuvre up to that point - the neon-tinged CRIMES OF PASSION. Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins reap the dramatic and theatrical rewards of their caricature-level-colorful characters in this profanity-laden exchange of words - and fluids - here.
After that, Russell crafted two gothic horror films - first, the aptly-named GOTHIC, and, then, the Bram Stoker-based THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. Both films have some seriously shocking scenes and visual scares sure to haunt your dreams and nightmares long after you have viewed them.
THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM
Russell ended the 1980s with a return to twenty years before - D. H. Lawrence and the precursor to WOMEN IN LOVE, titled THE RAINBOW.
1990s, 2000s & Beyond
Long before reality TV, watch the gritty and no-holds-barred opening of Ken Russell's WHORE here and see one of the many examples of Russel's incredible prescient sense of what's next. True, it's certainly a love-it or hate-it sort of film, but Theresa Russell's near-hysterical performance is nothing if not full-throttle and the format of the film alone now renders it a 21st century must-see.
With a sample of one of his many stage productions, you can view scenes from Ken Russell's opulent 1984 production of LA BOHEME, accompanied by behind the scenes photos of the production's mounting as well as much more, in this fascinating HD clip.
Next, here is a pivotal scene from Ken Russell's 1993 miniseries adaptation of the classic D. H. Lawrence romance LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean.
Filmed in his own backyard and starring family and friends in many of the roles, THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER was Ken Russell's final feature film, and, as the trailer clearly shows, even at as late a date as this he was full of vigor, verve and vivacity to match filmmakers half or a quarter his age and it is filled to the brim with all his own indefatigable, unflappable, indomitable spirit in every single frame.
Martin Scorsese shares his affection for the films of Ken Russell in this interview conducted earlier today and also shares a fascinating insight into Russell's pioneering use of music in movies. Then, Sir Ben Kingsley discusses Russell's indisputable "creative genius" and, also, his ultimate directorial legacy.
Closing our consideration of the life and career of Ken Russell with two stupendous music videos, here you can experience much of the magic and majesty of a complete Ken Russell production packed into a few mere minutes.
First, here is the pre-stage single version of "The Phantom Of The Opera" - with the campy original Richard Stilgoe lyrics - performed by Steve Harley and Sarah Brightman
Last, here is Ken Russell's banned original music video for the Pandora's Box version of "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", with a lead vocal sung by Elaine Caswell. This is about as epic a depiction of a motorcycle crash as you can get - and the perfect match to Jim Steinman's WUTHERING HEIGHTS-esque love-as-a-masquerade rock musical masterpiece.
Filmmakers with the vision, drive and passion of Ken Russell are as rare as an 17th century priest's femur bone - to cite THE DEVILS - and, if only for that, Ken Russell's career is one to remember fondly for film fans, theatre fans and entertainment mavens alike. The fact that so many of his films are so strange, searing and all-around strong to this very day and that they manage to still provoke such ire and controversy is proof in the plum pudding - or, make that: blood pudding - that Ken Russell's films will live on and be discussed, debated and devoured forever more - nude wrestling, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, baked beans and Ann-Margret included.