In 2008 BBC Video released Ken Russell at the BBC, a three-disc DVD collection of six biographical documentaries Ken Russell made for the BBC between 1962 and 1968. For the next few weeks I'll be writing about these groundbreaking films.
When John Schlesinger left the BBC arts program Monitor in 1959 to pursue a career in feature films, Ken Russell was hired to replace him on the program as a director of documentaries. According to Russell, his task there was to make films that were "inviting, accessible, and entertaining." He made short documentary profiles of people as diverse as Spike Milligan, the creator and costar (along with Peter Sellers) of the BBC Radio comedy program The Goon Show, the playwright Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), and the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. He stayed with Monitor and its successor series Omnibus for the next ten years, until he too left to make feature films. When Russell made his first documentary on a composer for Monitor, on Sergei Prokofiev in 1961, he asked the producer if he could hire an actor to re-create some scenes from Prokofiev's life. The producer was horrified at the idea of adding anything remotely fictional to a serious, high-toned documentary film but finally relented and allowed Russell one shot of an actor impersonating the composer, but only seen in reflection in a pond filled with floating leaves.
When Russell made his next film on a composer the following year, it was immediately apparent how far his and his producer's vision of what was permissible in a BBC documentary had progressed in the interval. This time the subject was the British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934), and the complete title of the episode is Elgar: Portrait of a Composer. If this didn't convey the message that Russell's approach to his subject was going to take the definition of such a film in new directions, then the opening minutes of the film certainly did. After a brief voice-over statement that Elgar spent much of his boyhood riding in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire, where he was born and grew up, for the next two minutes we see nothing but a young boy riding a pony across Malvern landscapes while Elgar's rhapsodic Introduction and Allegro for Strings plays on the soundtrack, a two-minute long cinematic tone poem.
Elgar contains no spoken dialogue, only voice-over narration that summarizes the composer's life and occasionally quotes from letters, diaries, and even postcards written to his daughter. But if the narration is conventional, the imagery that accompanies it most definitely is not. Russell illustrates the straightforward biographical narration with a combination of dramatized re-creations of scenes from Elgar's life—some shot with a hand-held camera to emulate the immediacy of newsreels and home movies—landscapes, still lifes, still photographs, and genuine period newsreel footage, all set to the glorious music of the composer. Using a mélange of images, inventive camera work and editing, music, sound effects, and narration, Russell overturns the traditionally impersonal tone of an established genre and replaces it with the personal vision of an inspired filmmaker. If today this approach to the biographical documentary seems less experimental than it once did, Elgar still seems remarkably fresh, and I think that's because of Russell's thorough commitment to finding creative ways to tell the story of Elgar and his music.
He also uses Elgar to explore themes he would delve into in greater detail in later films made for Monitor and Omnibus on composers and painters. Taken together, his ideas on these themes can be considered a working treatise of Russell's views on the nature of art and artists. Through Elgar's relationship with his wife Alice, Russell explores the intersection of artists' personal lives and relationships with their art. In emphasizing how many years it took Elgar to be accepted as a serious composer—in part at least because of his lower middle-class background and lack of formal musical training—Russell explores the ways that artists' battles with society can inhibit critical and popular recognition of their genius. Most significantly, he explores the sources of the artist's inspiration, here by focusing on the relationship between Elgar's music and the natural world. Elgar was a self-professed plein-air composer who always composed outdoors and claimed to draw his inspiration from nature, a source of inspiration hinted at from the very beginning of the film in that opening sequence of the young Elgar riding across the countryside.
Above all, Russell tells the story of Elgar's life through his music, using the music to comment on events in the composer's life. This marriage of Elgar's music with Russell's images reaches its peak in the last few minutes of the film. As a passage from the elegiac Second Symphony plays on the soundtrack, we see newsreel footage of the funeral procession of King Edward VII in 1910, which then segues into newsreel footage of World War I, while the soundtrack slowly segues into Elgar's most familiar work, the Pomp and Circumstance march. We are told how the sentimental and patriotic associations with that work were exploited to manipulate public feelings about the war and how this jingoistic appropriation of his music appalled Elgar, leading to his dismay with the modern world as a place with "no soul, no romance, and no imagination" and finally to his last great work, the hauntingly beautiful and mournful Cello Concerto, one of my own favorite pieces of classical music. (You may recall Jacqueline du Pré's exquisite version from the movie Hilary and Jackie of a few years ago.) After the sudden death of his wife Alice, Elgar gave up composing and returned to Worcestershire, and we see him making the journey across the Malvern landscapes in his automobile in a mirror image of the opening sequence, as the concluding section of Introduction and Allegro for Strings, the same piece used in that opening sequence, plays. The closing montage of the elderly Elgar confined to his bed as he drifts through his memories while the Enigma Variations plays on the soundtrack is almost unbearably sad.
If Elgar seems far removed from the standard highbrow BBC documentary of the time on a great artist, the next work in the set seems to come from another universe altogether. To call The Debussy Film innovative would be a tremendous understatement, so extreme a departure is it from anything one might have expected from the BBC circa 1965 or even from the imaginative director of Elgar. Revolutionary would be more like it, for the film constitutes an all-out assault on the traditional documentary film biography, finding startling new ways to tell the story of the life of a famous person on film and to match storytelling technique to the particulars of the subject's life.
As in Elgar, Russell announces his intentions in the opening minutes of the film. The first thing we see is a group of modern cars arriving at what appears to be a French château, where props and actors in period costume are already waiting. Then we see a film director, played by the Polish actor Vladek Sheybal, explaining to a small boy in costume that the scene about to be filmed is the funeral cortège of the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), played in the film by Oliver Reed. (This was the first of nine times he would work with Russell, who says he cast Reed because he thought the actor looked like Debussy.) After this we watch the actual scene being shot while the director shouts directions to the actors from offscreen.
What we are watching is not a straightforward biography at all, but a film about the making of a film about Debussy. For nearly an hour and a half Russell slides between episodes from Debussy's life re-created for the film biography, dramatized scenes of that film being made, scenes of the fictional director and actors discussing the documentary both outside filming and during filming, and scenes of the performers in the documentary acting out events in their own lives that mirror the relationships of the people they are portraying in that film. At one point, right in the middle of a scene in the documentary, the director steps into the frame, yells "Cut!" and begins discussing the scene with the actors. At another point the director, now in period costume himself and playing the part of Debussy's controlling patron Pierre Louÿs ("What he really liked was to manipulate people . . . a kind of Svengali," the director has explained to Reed without even a hint of irony), suddenly breaks out of character and yells "Cut!" directly at the camera. Later in the film, Russell takes the concept of the play within the play even further, as the director and cast watch other actors in period costume theatrically overacting a scene from a real play, The Naked Lady, which was based on a sex scandal from Debussy's life that they plan to cover in the documentary. To characterize The Debussy Film as multi-layered would barely begin to describe its intricacy.
In The Debussy Film Russell emphasizes his subject's personal life even more than he did in Elgar. The entire narrative of the film is organized around Debussy's love life and his succession of lovers and mistresses, especially Gaby Dupont (Annette Robertson), suggesting erotic underpinnings to Debussy's sensual music. Naturally, the actors playing these people are having a tempestuous offscreen love affair. Russell also explores how Debussy's scandalous sex life—he was part of the French avant-garde movement of the late 19th century that consciously set out to live up to its motto, épater le bourgeois (shake up the middle class)—set back his musical career.
Russell also examines the way artistic movements of the time influenced Debussy's music. It's interesting that although Debussy is usually described as an Impressionist composer, the Impressionist painters are never mentioned. Instead Russell dwells on the influence on Debussy's music of the Art Nouveau style and the English Pre-Raphaelite painters (a movement Russell and Reed would examine in detail in Dante's Inferno, their 1967 film on Dante Gabriel Rosetti). In one scene, the director explains to Reed Debussy's fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites as he guides Reed through the Pre-Raphaelite collection at the Tate Gallery. It's a good example of the imaginative ways Russell repeatedly disguises biographical and background information about Debussy as part of a narrative rather than simply having someone read the information in voice-over as was traditionally done in biographical documentaries, including Elgar.
Debussy was also inspired by the French Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poems he transposed into symphonic compositions. Mallarmé's "Afternoon of a Faun" inspired one of Debussy's best known works, which in Russell's hands becomes one of several passages in The Debussy Film that are forerunners of the music video. As well as the music of Debussy, Russell manages to mix in, thanks to the modern, non-biographical sections, music as disparate as The Ride of the Valkyries, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring," and even the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." Talk about musical diversity! But the most impressive musical passage in The Debussy Film is La Mer, and rightly so, for as Russell has his director character explain to Reed, this was the culmination of Debussy's musical innovation and the work that made his career.
The final minutes of The Debussy Film are a knockout. In a long, dreamlike passage Russell relates Debussy's obsession during the last days of his life with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." He came to identify strongly with Roderick Usher, the main character of Poe's story, and to identify his former mistress Gaby Dupont with Usher's dead sister. Visually, these are some of the simplest but most arresting parts of the entire film, the compositions reminiscent of those of Citizen Kane or Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible movies in their austere, formal beauty. And this section of the film points ahead to Russell's increasing preoccupation with bohemian eccentricities that border on, and sometimes cross over to, madness. As in Elgar, Russell brings The Debussy Film full circle at the end, by showing us straight, without any manipulation of the film's point of view, the scene of the funeral cortège that was being prepared and shot in the opening sequence. It's a marvelously unembellished, stately coda to what has been a thrilling rush of nonstop invention that transforms a staid format into something exciting, passionate, and visionary.