Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ken Russell: Musicals and Biopics, Part 1 (The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, Savage Messiah, and Mahler)

After the release of The Devils, Ken Russell embarked on making a string of experimental, personal films -- some, on both accounts, more than others -- about artists, the theater, and composers. This olio of avant-garde work showcases the best and worst of Russell the auteur exploring his favorite subject: the creation of art by geniuses (and what makes those geniuses tick). The best example of this favorite theme of Russell’s is the stream-of-consciousness biopic Mahler and the rock opera Tommy (a precursor to all of the Baz Luhrmann/Guy Ritchie MTV-stylized films – and the forefather of rock videos, actually); Russell’s worst is in the verbose, overwrought The Music Lovers. And yet, what is perhaps most disappointing about this string of 70’s films is that, for the most part, they seem so benign and forgettable in the wake of Russell’s first two films (the beautiful looking, beautifully acted Women in Love and the visceral, jarring The Devils). What can be ascertained from this slate of 70’s films? Well for starters, we can see that Russell spurned the studios (and why wouldn’t he after his experiences with The Music Lovers and The Devils?) and decided to make films about subjects that were personal to him – all-the-while continuing to intersperse his favorite themes of religion and the creation of art into these films. It’s a wide range of films all varying in successes and failures, but I think these70’s films of Russell are vital to his oeuvre because it gives us insight into why Russell became the type of filmmaker he was in the 80’s and 90’s.

If these particular films were presented to me in the form of a coffee table book, I would have no problem flipping through the pages and admiring the images. I have no qualms with Russell the visionary; Russell the storyteller is often another issue altogether. I can only admire the look of a film to a certain point. I certainly have been one to praise a film that is merely all style and no substance, but when looking back at the director’s oeuvre – and viewing these films back to back in some cases – it began to wear on this viewer: all I wanted, just once, was any semblance of story or characters to care about. To his credit – like any auteur whether it be Fellini or Bergman (just to name two) – Russell never wavers from his ultimate vision; he is always original and always energetic (never boring), but sometimes that comes at the price of a coherent, enjoyable film. I know Russell can make a film that is aesthetically pleasing and a coherent narrative that the audience cares about because he did it in Women in Love and The Devils; he successfully balanced style and substance and kept me enthralled throughout with his outlandish, repulsive imagery. With these artistic biopics and musicals, my own biases began to pierce through the “I’ll-give-anything-a-try” mentality that I approached the films with. In the case of The Boy Friend, it was my lack of enthusiasm for the musical. In the case of The Music Lovers, it was merely me being a neophyte when it comes to all things classical music; therefore, I had no investment in the narrative of those films because I knew nothing about them or their source material, and Russell was not interested in making a film that sought to inform the uninformed viewer, nor did he seek to make the characters seem interesting or likable enough for the uninitiated to suspend their not giving a damn about not knowing anything about the character and instead just sitting back and enjoying the movie. Knowing about the context of a biopic is not necessary to enjoying the film, but when the filmmakers make as inept an attempt at a biopic as is seen in The Music Lovers then the uninitiated viewer cannot be expected to care beyond the pretty imagery on the screen.

The reason for cramming all of these reviews into two posts is because I felt like I didn’t have enough to say about them to stand as their own post (I’m hoping you guys can help me out with that in the comments), and I felt like the common themes found in all of these films – whether they be about art and the genius behind creating that art, or whether they are garish musicals showing Russell’s love for flamboyance and Rock n’ Roll aesthetic – deserved to be talked about in one post (I didn’t want to drag the same themes out over six different posts). The following mini-essays are in chronological order and will be divided into two parts.

The Music Lovers

After Women in Love, Russell made this biopic about Tchaikovsky and his repressed homosexuality and his relationship with his muse. Russell famously described the film as “the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac.” It is said that Russell sold the film based on this description because it was the only way he could convince the studio to finance his film (this was the last of Russell’s film to really make a profit); I have to say this makes a lot of sense. The film is a chore to sit through. Richard Chamberlain acts to the back of the room, and Glenda Jackson (fresh off her Oscar win for Russell’s Women in Love) is completely wasted here. The film follows little structure, but instead seems to just bounce around from scene to scene showing Tchaikovsky the genius making his music; not once is there a scene showing us the process of making this music, nor is there a scene showing us how hard Tchaikovsky must have worked to create his masterpieces. That’s because Russell is not interested in that kind of biopic. Instead, Russell seeks to make an experimental film showcasing some of his favorite music from Tchaikovsky with a story that just happens to have Tchaikovsky as the main character.

The film looks nice and is pleasant enough to sit through at first, but as the characters become more manic so does the film’s aesthetic. I understand what Russell was trying to do, and I’m usually game for this kind of matching of aesthetic and tone; however, The Music Lovers, which begins harmlessly enough with a beautiful melding of Tchaikovsky playing his latest symphony and Russell showing us the fantasies that this evokes, goes too far in some scenes that eventually I just began laughing at it. Whether it’s the claustrophobic and absurd “sex” scene on the train or the eye-rollingly awful ending where Jackson is molested by fellow inmates at an insane asylum screams “I have plenty of lovers!”, the film is just too sensational, absurd, and schizophrenic.

The film’s most notorious scene – an exhilarating, absurd, obscene and appropriately Russellesque, visualization of madness set to the "War of 1812 Overture" – is a perfect example of what makes Russell so appealing and maddening. In the context of the film the scene is laughable; it’s a horribly manic scene gone wrong. However, without the context of it sitting in a biopic the scene is a standout of Russell’s. It’s a visceral moment that shows the kind of artistic audacity (my favorite part is when all of the heads explode) that Fellini showed in his later work.  Once again, Russell’s humor and aesthetic stylings are extremely avant-garde and a bit indebted to the Dada art movement. You just can’t help but stare agape at the ending to The Music Lovers. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I know that as an isolated scene, "War of 1812 Overture" montage is one of Russell’s most bombastic, hilarious, and best moments; however, within the context of the film the scene’s tone is just all wrong*.

If the film had come at another point in Russell’s career, then maybe I would be less harsh on it. However, the film is sandwiched between Russell’s two great, early-career achievements (Women in Love and The Devils), and the shortcomings of The Music Lovers is enhanced even more because of its placements in Russell’s filmography. It’s an interesting curiosity – showcasing the baroque, Fellini-like qualities of Russell’s films where he guides his audience through a manic jungle of beautiful production design and insufferable characters – for about 30 minutes, but the film is just too much of a mess (especially compared to Russell’s other experiments from the decade) narratively (what is this film really about?) and aesthetically (it looks nice, but by the end it wears on you) to be considered any more than just a minor entry into the Russell canon.

*Maybe I’m being too pedantic when it comes to what I think a biopic should be. I certainly appreciate what Russell was trying to do by not making yet ANOTHER stuffy British biopic (although he kind of does that with Savage Messiah), but I can’t help but think that my own limitations on this particular subgenre shouldn’t be an issue here if the film were successful – in other words, if Russell had made a better movie I would be more than willing to overlook the film’s insufficiencies. And scenes like that of the "War of 1812 Overture" montage wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

The Boyfriend

Made the same year as The Devils (1971), The Boy friend is Russell’s take on the undiscovered-starlet-making-it-big-in-the-theater film. I really do not like musicals, but The Boy friend is one of the better ones I’ve seen because of Russell’s satirical approach to the material, and his reluctance to film the story as a straight film adaptation of a stage musical. Russell decides to film the story as a behind-the-scenes take on the production of the musical. Model-turned-actress Twiggy plays Polly Browne, a stage-assistant who becomes the star of the matinee show when the lead actress, Rita, can’t perform. During this matinee performance a director (Cecil B. DeThrill…oh Russell, you cheeky bastard) sits in the audience and wants to hire Polly for his latest film which will be all singing and all dancing.

The Boy friend lacks (on purpose) what the best musicals by Minnelli, Astaire, Crosby, and even contemporary musicals by Bob Fosse and Woody Allen (even though Allen only made one musical, his Everyone Says I Love You is one of the few musicals I can tolerate) have: visual flare and musical numbers that can only exist in the movies. The musical is actually akin to the horror genre in that you can play around more with conventions because those particular genres don’t lend themselves to any kind of reality. However, here it seems Russell is channeling Busby Berkeley more than someone original like the aforementioned filmmakers. The Boy Friend is filled with Berkeley-like song-and-dance numbers, and boy are they tedious. That doesn’t mean the films isn’t good – it’s harmless, really – but the song-and-dance numbers are some of the dullest I’ve seen in my limited experience with the genre, and my only conclusion can be that Russell was doing this on purpose in an effort to satirize the very style that he is the antethisis of. Berkeley numbers are straight forward: leggy, toothy women all lined up on big piano, in front of a flag (seen in this movie), or perfectly choreographed around a fountain singing show tunes. There’s not much left to the imagination, and I have to think that the highly imaginative Russell was poking fun of this inert style of making a musical with how he decided to go about making The Boy Friend. The only real problem I have – and this is a major problem I have with all musicals – is the length of the film. Since I am not a fan of the genre, it’s really hard for me to sit through a musical that is longer than 90 minutes. Russell does his best to hold my interest, but the film, after the opening 40 minutes or so, is a repetitive exercise. Which I suppose is the joke: Russell is making his musical as banal and stationary as Berkeley’s.

Still, The Boy Friend is about as harmless an entry in the Russell canon as there is.  Twiggy’s performance also helps alleviate some of the boredom of the film as she shows good command of her performance throughout. I haven’t seen her in anything else, and a quick glance at her IMDB page shows that she briefly appeared as an onlooker in The Devils – before storming off the set once the nuns reduced a statue of Christ to a sex toy – and the schlock horror film W (co-starring Dirk Benedict and produced by Mel Ferrer!) and not much else aside from a brief appearance in The Blues Brothers. Notorious for being the first famous teen model, Twiggy showed that she was more than just a model and a good singer in The Boy Friend, and it’s a shame that she was never given another opportunity to show her acting chops (although her recording career and television appearances have kept her plenty busy; she even made an appearance, like Russell, on reality television by being a judge on “America’s Next Top Model”).  The Boy Friend is probably the most harmless, and therefore forgettable, of Russell’s 70’s output.

Savage Messiah

Russell’s third film about genius is so much more enjoyable when held up to his previous attempts to explicate the themes of art and genius. Savage Messiah is better because it has that kind of head-long energy we come to associate with Russell’s work; however, like he did in the brilliant Women in Love, Russell finds a way to surround this energy with a grounded, almost quiet, narrative. It helps because if the aesthetic matches the characters then you get a film like The Music Lovers – an insufferable exercise in excess (not to mention an inexcusable decision to not show how an artist at work actually does their work).  Once again Russell seeks to make a biopic about a non-British genius. In Savage Messiah, Russell’s focus is on eccentric French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony) and his relationship with Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin). The film is an odd love story because Henri is nearly 20 years younger than Sophie, yet the relationship is not predicated on sex (this isn’t “Cougar Town”!) because Sophie is averse to the idea of their relationship being about such a thing (she turns him away every chance she gets). Even though Henri eventually tacked on her last name to his own, the two never married. The story is more or less true: Henri did live in Bohemian Paris and he did enjoy a lot of early success, he did indeed hang out with suffragettes – one in particular that offers him all of the things that Sophie withholds from him, and, sadly, he did die at the age of 23 in World War I.

What’s most noticeable about the film is the way Russell scales things down and seems to be going back to his BBC roots with the more personal, small-scale production (he financed the film with his own money). In fact, it’s easy to see Russell in Henri: both have a creative genius inside of them that drives them to great lengths to create art that they so desperately want to share with people. This isn’t a tale of art for art’s sake; no, this is a story about a sculptor who has an incredible creative drive and an enthusiasm (and the portrayal of that enthusiasm by Antony is one of the film’s greatest assets) for his art that definitely parallels Russell. There’s a tremendous, nearly 10 minute long, scene where all we do is watch Henri pounding away creating a piece of art. While he does this, he explains his theories on art; my favorite is when he claims that “he’s not interested in other people’s art unless he can steal from it.” I smiled when I heard this line because I imagine it ringing true for Russell.

There are some really nice moments in the film: a wonderful opening credit sequence with Henri drawing the bones of a hand, a quiet afternoon by a pond looking at some ducks, a brush with death at a train station, the Henri throwing his statue through the window of a stuffy art gallery, the aforementioned creation of a sculpture, the hilarious jabs Russell takes at aesthetes as Henri and Sophie converse around the dinner table with snobs, a bizarre performance piece by Sophie that seems to take place in some kind of funhouse, and the final moments (some of Russell’s most powerful) that cross-cut a dance number, garish colors, the reading of Henri’s final letter home by the aesthetes, and Henri’s sculptures – simply as they appeared, and set to music when Russell filmed them at the Edinburgh Museum – being viewed one final time by a weeping Sophie. The final shot – as seen from the inside of Henri’s studio – is an homage (Russell’s second that I’ve counted) to Fritz Lang (it looks identical to the workers area from Metropolis).

It’s odd that Savage Messiah – one of Russell’s tamest films of the 70’s – is a film that feels alive with the kind of energy we associate with the auteur’s most personal projects. Oh, not because of the material, but because it lacks the baroque imagery of his previous films – his trademark aesthetic that made him famous. Here, Henri Gaudier is a doppelganger for Russell, and it becomes clear that Savage Messiah is arguably Russell’s most personal film (you could make a case for Mahler, too). It crushed Russell that nobody went to this film, and he followed this small, personal experiment with louder, more garish exercises that are fantastic films of fancy, but feel just a tad cold because they fail to match the personal touch found in the narrative of Savage Messiah. Here is a film that deserves to be in the company of Russell’s best films.


After the disappointment of Savage Messiah, Russell needed a commercial success, so he decided to return to the “composer biopic” well (The Music Lovers was a success for him) – this time taking on the life of Gustav Mahler. Russell again tackles a creative figure that is very dear to him, and Mahler is indeed one of Russell’s most personal projects. From what I can gather about Mahler (again, I am not a classical musical maven by any stretch of the imagination), Russell is the ideal filmmaker to make a biopic about a composer who was so disgusted with projected meaning to his work. Russell, again, is not interested in making your normal biopic, but what makes Mahler so much better than The Music Lovers is that its flights of existential and ambiguous fancy are interspersed with a narrative that lets the viewer know from the onset (the opening moments of the film are some of my favorite) that this is a film that is going to take place in the protagonist’s subconscious. The dream-narrative of Mahler is much more tolerable than that of The Music Lovers because Russell isn’t interested in passing this off as your normal biopic; instead, like Mahler himself, he’s interested in explicating the motivations of Mahler’s music by refusing to shower the man with false reverence. Russell’s Mahler is neurotic and testy; someone who is tired of people thinking they know anything about his music simply based on something they’ve read in the newspaper. The same could be said for Russell himself, and it’s this attitude that can be seen throughout the film.

The film takes place over the course of a train ride where Mahler (Robert Powell) and his wife Alma (Georgina Hale) argue about their marriage, his life, and his recent exodus from New York after a failed run at the Metropolitan Opera. The film is another stream-of-consciousness exercise by Russell where he has his Mahler face all of his problems on the train and then ruminate on them via dream or flashback. On the train, Mahler deals with the burdens of celebrity (in the form of adoring fans showering him with flowers and claiming to know more about his music than he does), infidelity (his wife very brusquely explains her plan to leave him when they arrive at their destination), criticism (critics view his work in the most literal sense – always displacing themes of death on his work), and of course death (in the form of his illness and meeting with a doctor on the train).

The film opens with gusto as we see Mahler’s childhood home on a serene lake, and then, suddenly, it bursts into flames as the first movement of his Third Symphony fills the air. We then see a mummified body struggling to free itself from its cocoon; then the body moves upon the jagged rocks and begin to make-out with a bust of Mahler. We soon find out that it is Alma who is the woman in the dream, and as we enter into reality for the first time we see the terminally ill Mahler, on the train, explaining his dream to Alma. She sees it as nothing more than a power struggle; he explains it as a metaphor that once he dies she can finally live and be free.  The motif is at the forefront of the film and acts as a catalyst for a lot of Mahler’s drifting into memory and fantasy.

The film’s narrative moves in and out of Mahler’s dreams and flashback as his music plays over the memories of his life. It is in this style of biopic that Russell has fashioned another visual masterpiece that not only is easy on the eyes, but is aurally rewarding as well – especially for this classical music neophyte. One only needs to look to Mahler to see how Russell went so very wrong with his previous attempt at a biopic about a composer. Here, Russell actually allows the music to take center stage over his idiosyncrasies (with the exception of a few numbers), and it is this handling – this balance – of the aesthetic and the music (conducted by Bernard Haitink) that makes Mahler the best of his 70’s films about creativity and genius.

Like Julie Taymor, Ken Russell is not interested in conserving the sanctity or “purity” of the music in question. Taymor did this with The Beatles in Across the Universe (a film I hated), and Russell does it here, too, by placing Mahler’s music over some of his most bizarre imagery. This must have irked purists, for Russell – ever the religious antagonist – places some of Mahler’s “sacred” music over religious imagery in a mocking, sardonic kind of way suggesting that perhaps these “purists” didn’t know a damn thing about Mahler’s music. My favorite of these moments is Mahler’s renunciation of Judaism in the name of popularity, conformity, and money. In what can only be described as one of Russell’s most ballsy scenes (set to the aesthetic of a silent film), Mahler dons the attire of the Crusades while Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis), dressed in a kind of Ilsa of the S.S. Nazi dominatrix garb, encourages along his transformation from Jew to Christian; it’s really one of Russell’s most outstanding (and outlandish) moments as we not only get the obvious religious imagery here (the cross and the star of David are placed alongside swastikas), but we also get what is one of Russell’s most eccentric artistic interpretations as Mahler succumbs to the pressures to turn his back on his Jewish faith in the name of commercialism by devouring a non-kosher pigs head. It’s really quite something – a scene that is nearly topped by another number in the film where Mahler, dead in his coffin, can see his own funeral procession (appropriately set to what experts think is Mahler’s most surreal work: the Seventh Symphony). It is here that Russell stages one of his most garish numbers – and gives a nice little hattip to Dreyer’s Vampyr while he’s at it – and like the image of freedom that began the film, Russell once again juxtaposes images of life and death – jubilation and despair -- brilliantly.

There are plenty of parallels to draw here between Russell’s idea of Mahler and Russell himself. For one, Mahler is always reminding people he runs into on the train that if he needed to explain the meaning behind his work with words then he wouldn’t have written anything at all. Russell, ever the visionary, no doubt feels the same way about his films and how often misunderstood them are. Another parallel is the frustration Mahler constantly felt about his adorers accepting his music on its most literal level. In a wonderful scene with a reporter, Mahler quips, “Why is everyone so literal nowadays?” This response could be coming straight from Russell’s mouth especially considering the reaction (and reputation) The Devils received.

Mahler is one of my favorite Russell films; a film that is just as much about its subject and the creation of their masterpieces as it is about Russell showing off. I like that combination, and in Mahler the good Russell shows through. It may not be as even or involving as Savage Messiah, but it’s the kind of visceral experience that makes me forget about just how arbitrary the whole experience it. He’s garish and overt like we come to expect, but he’s also subtle and nuanced when he wants to be. There are some surprisingly quiet moments of poignancy in the film when Alma, who is a more defined supporting character than we come to expect from a Russell film), fears for the omen the title of Gustav’s “Songs for the Death of Children” might bring (and it did bring horrible tragedy to them as their daughter would eventually die quite young) and how he has essentially bathed himself in death). Alma – no artistic slouch herself – is constantly in the shadow of Gustav, and Russell subtly installs this motif throughout the film by having Alma always wear a black veil – a symbol for her creative death, Mahler’s impending death, and the death of her marriage as she icily has affairs and rubs it in Mahler’s face. Mahler is no saint, though, and Russell refuses to portray him as such. It must suck to know, let alone be married to, an artist of this magnitude, and when Mahler tells her about how all of the music – everything he’s written – has been about her and his love for her it seems to win her over; however, we can’t help but call into question the sincerity of it because of Mahler’s reluctance to label his work with such clich├ęs (he also insists throughout the film that his music is about nature – and humans oneness with nature – and not death as so many seemed to insist that it was).

Regardless of the sincerity of the film’s ending, Mahler is a fascinating experience. Clearly this film was the first of many (especially the two that followed this: Tommy and Lisztomania) that inspired the likes of Taymor and Luhrmann with its use of non-linear biographical storytelling mixed together with the typically baroque and garish Russell aesthetic. It’s Russell at his visual best; it’s a film I’ve already revisited, and a film I can’t get out of my mind. Mahler is a lot like The Devils in that it is Ken Russell being the good, interesting auteur instead of the maddening one. You take the good with the bad in regards to Russell, and even though Mahler is ultimately arbitrary (in the same way a Taymor movie is – I don’t ever feel like she’s telling me anything new), it doesn’t matter because the film is really, really interesting to look at (not to mention listen to); and the good – in regards to Russell – is always worth slogging through the bad for.

Part two will look at the films that wrapped-up the decade for Russell: Tommy, Lisztomania, and Valentino. One was a huge success, and the other two were bombs that pretty much marked the last time that "Ken Russell" and "financially successful film" would be uttered in the same sentence.


  1. Geez, Kevin, I don't seem to remember you hating Taymor's ACROSS THE UNIVERSE that much! Well, Taymor owes some of her stylistic excesses to Russell, and I must commend you for this incredibly comprehensive round-up of four film, where you go far more than just penning capsule appraisals. I like THE MUSIC LOVERS quite a bit more than you, though I must say I can't argue with you when you say this:

    "The film’s most notorious scene – an exhilarating, absurd, obscene and appropriately Russellesque, visualization of madness set to the "War of 1812 Overture" – is a perfect example of what makes Russell so appealing and maddening."

    Then you go on to deride the overall effect. I take as Russell being Russell. There isn't any time table or any aesthetic rules--he goes with what comes into his mind with wreckless abandon, conforming to no overriding linear narrative or thematic consistency. I adore Tchaikovsky and his music, hence I have also been drawn to THE MUSIC LOVERS. I must say I agree with you that THE BOY FRIEND is repetitive, and I have always seen it as just about Russell's worst film. It's frivilous, and empty, though cinematically trendy for its time. SAVAGE MESSIAH (which you do seem to like fairly well here) is quite excellent, and I was fortunate to see it in a stunning print at Russellmania. It's quite a feast for the eyes, and as you note there are some arresting sequences, like several of the 'drawing' scenes. I really am hoping a legitimate DVD will be released; this is a glaring oversight. MAHLER is undisciplined and uneven, but again it's Russell through and through, and it's often stunning visually and in it's use of this great composer's music. There often is no rhyme or reason, but you come away ravished, which is the bottom line with Russell's cinema.

    Merry Christmas to you and your lovely wife Kevin!