“Ken Russell, the British director whose daring and sometimes outrageous films often tested the patience of audiences and critics, has died,” reports the AP. “He was 84.”
“Known for a flamboyant style that was developed during his early career in television, Russell’s films often courted controversy,” writes Henry Barnes for the Guardian. “Women in Love, released in 1969, became notorious for its nude male wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, while Tommy, his starry version of The Who’s rock opera, was his biggest commercial success, beginning as a stage musical before being reimagined for the screen in 1976. But Russell fell out of the limelight in recent years, as some of his funding resources dried up and his proposed projects ever more eclectic. He returned to the public eye in 2007, when he appeared on the fifth edition of Celebrity Big Brother, before quitting the show after a disagreement with fellow contestant Jade Goody.”
Earlier this month, when the British Film Institute announced that it’d be giving The Devils (1971) its first-ever release on DVD, we posted a roundup on what long-time Russells champion Mark Kermode calls “his most incendiary work.” And last month, we noted that Russell’s collaboration with The Who’s Roger Daltry would carry on after Tommy with Lisztomania (1975), which NPR’s Phil Harrell calls “a bit over the top,” a mini-review that might serve for nearly all of Russell’s work and one that he himself would surely relish.
Updates: From the BBC: “He specialized in the interpretation of the great classical composers, extravaganzas which matched powerful images with a dramatic score…. He harbored a childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer but, instead, joined the Merchant Navy as a teenager. On one occasion he was made to stand watch in the blazing sun for hours on end while crossing the Pacific. His lunatic captain feared an attack by Japanese midget submarines despite the war having ended. A nervous breakdown ensued and, it was during his recovery that he first heard Tchaikovsky on the radio, inspiring a lifelong obsession with the classical composers. After a spell in the Royal Air Force he became a photographer and first made amateur films while working for the magazine, Picture Post. Music became his passion. Delius, Debussy, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler and Liszt were among the composers given the Russell treatment.”
Related reading from Rouge 8: Donald Phelps on “Ken Russell’s Portraits of Elgar, Delius and Mahler.” And in February, Mike Dempsy noted that Elgar (1962) “is still regarded by the BFI as one of the best television documentaries. In 1966 Russell made Isadora Duncan and a year later Song of Summer — a beautifully crafted piece on the closing years of British composer, Fredrick Delius. This for me was the culmination of Russell’s trail-blazing work in this ‘dramatic’ genre.”