Ken Russell – who died on November 27 at the age of 84 – was one of the great British maverick film directors. Alongside Lindsay Anderson and Nicolas Roeg, Russell debunked a few taboos in films and introduced a new form of modernity in British cinema.
He was a kind of British Fellini, creating visual universes that were unique, and had, like his Italian counterpart, an appetite for unconventional narratives and stories, as well as a capacity to make some arrangements with reality: Russell’s ‘Mahler’ or his film on Tchaikovsky are probably as close to real life as Fellini’s ‘Casonova’ – in other words, pure fiction.
Excess was normal to him, even pushed to the limits of grotesque. And he would court controversy too. Think of the nude scene of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling in ‘Women in Love’, or the sex scenes with nuns in ‘The Devils’.
From a very young age, Russell was passionate about film and music, especially classical music. He made his dent in filmmaking through commissions for British TV shows such as Monitor. But he is better known for his music-related films such as 1970’s ‘The Music Lovers’, 1974’s ‘Mahler’, 1975’s ‘Tommy’ and 1976’s ‘Lisztomania’ – for which he pioneered the Dolby stereo sound.
‘The Music Lovers’ is about Russian composer Tchaikovsky, with Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson. To sell the movie to his producers, Russell described the movie as the story of “a homosexual who falls in love with a nymphomaniac”. And the film is pretty much about that, and a few more things, shot in a flamboyant, if not decadent style.
‘Mahler’, which was shot in the Lake District in Northern England, has a lot of depth in that it tries to explain the mysteries of creation through the life of the Austrian composer. The music in the movie is haunting and it rates probably as one of Russell’s’ greatest achievements.
Russell was no fan of rock music, which he described as “an endless bang crash bang crash wall”… But when he was confronted with Pete Townshend’s rock opus ‘Tommy’ he decided to have a go at it. The movie has aged but remains one of the great rock movies of all time, not least because of its cast (The who, of course, but also Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner, etc).
In an interview I did with him in 2006, Russell said that he believed that ‘Tommy’ pre-dated and opened the era of MTV, since the film was a series of music videos. He also came to respect the rock stars who were playing in the film. He was warned that he would go through problems with such a bunch of hellraisers, but all went fine. “Since they were not professional actors, they were very concentrated and eager to do well,” he told me. “And they let their ego aside before getting on the set.”
Russell mentioned his fondness for The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, whom he thought was the most talented of the lot for comedy and acting. In the famous scene in which he plays Uncle Ernie, Moon breaks half a dozen eggs in a glass and swallows them. “He was perfect and we only did a few shots,” said Russell. “He was charming and talented.” But when asked what his favourite scenes from ‘Tommy’ was, Russell would roar with laughter at the mention of the one in which Ann-Margret swims in a sea of beans and chocolate.
‘Tommy’ is one of the few movies, with ‘Music Lovers’, that Russell continued to make money from. Russell explained why: “I had an agent who was not too good and quite lazy, so he made some very bad deals. I do get royalties from ‘Tommy’, not as much as I should, but at least I am getting something.”
Russell told me that his worst working experience was with Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev who was the lead actor in ‘Valentino’, a biopic on the silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. “He was a diva and made my life terrible,” he said. “On top, he could not deliver his lines!”
I met Ken Russell in 2006, when I was asked to get in touch with him by a group of friends who were setting up a music and film festival in the French city of Besancon. They planned to offer him a Lifetime Achievement Award and present some of his movies. The first meeting between him and his wife Elize Tribble with the festival’s co-founder Pascal Signolet and myself took place in a restaurant near Southampton where he lived.
He chose the place because they had a good wine list, he told us later. And indeed, over some very decent French wine, we went through the motions. He was happy to do anything we asked him to. He was wearing a colourful shirt and sandals with some woollen socks. Not very trendy, and quite eccentric. Elize Tribble, his fourth wife, appeared dedicated to her husband, often finishing his sentences or helping him when his memory faltered. (“I married him for love, not for money,” she said.)
I believe he was deeply touched that somewhere in the world (and even more so, in France), there were people who highly regarded his work. “I’ve never been recognised in my country where the film establishment ignores me,” he said. He relished the attention he would receive in Besancon and he was looking forward to a few days of good food and wines, and talking about movies (we were to do a master class with him).
Unfortunately, upon advice from his doctors, he had to cancel the trip (although he appeared a few days later on Big Brother so we always questioned the reality of his illness…). But we needed something from him, so off I went back to Southampton to get a video interview with him.
Russell welcomed me in his modest suburban house in Southampton. The place was an untidy mess with documents scattered all over the living room, sharing space with drying clothes. There, we recorded some footage to be played at the festival to introduce his various movies. He grabbed a small digital camera – he was very interested in new digital technologies – and his wife Elize played the cinematographer while I was asking the questions.
As an intro, he put on a mask representing a skull. He thought it was hilarious. Within 25 minutes we had it all in the box (Russell was a very good speaker). “That should do,” said Russell. As I was packing, I suggested that quite a few beautiful women -- Vanessa Redgrave, Ann-Margret or Glenda Jackson, to name but a few – crossed his life. “That’s because I paid them,” he quipped. We laughed, but I am not sure that Elize enjoyed the pun.
The past 30 years have not been too easy for him. A lot of project collapsed, due to lack of financing. He had a few successes with 1980’s sci-fi movie ‘Altered States’ and 1990’s ‘The Russia House’. Towards the end of his life, he was trying to self-finance his films with moderate success. He worked on a project with the late (and quite eccentric) German actor Klaus Kinski about the life of Brahms. With a burst of laughter, Russell recalled that Kinski promised that he would play each scene in which Brahms music would feature with a massive erection…
Russell also worked on a film about the Gershwin brothers, for which he had been in contact with one of the brothers, Ira. Again, the film never materialised. In April 2006, part of his house burnt and in flames went a good part of his archives, scripts and films. At least, he got the recognition he deserved in North America when in 2010, the Cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal and the Lincoln Centre in New York offered a retrospective of his works.
Too bad he never made it to Besancon. He would have enjoyed the public’s attention, the good food and the local wines.
I still have the award. Never got the chance to bring it to him.
(See Part 2: An interview with Ken Russell)
(See Part 2: An interview with Ken Russell)