Monday, December 27, 2010

Ken Russell: The Musicals and Biopics, Part 2 (Tommy, Lisztomania, and Valentino)

After Mahler, Ken Russell signed on to turn the massively popular rock opera “Tommy” by The Who into a feature film. The film would go on to bring Russell his greatest success (both critically and financially) and would lead him to re-team with The Who frontman Roger Daltry for the hilariously absurd Lisztomania. That film was a bomb (although it did enjoy some minor success at the British box office) –in actuality it’s worse than that; although, it does play as some kind of perverse curiosity – and ultimately led to Russell’s worst film (a film he denounced), Valentino. The end of the 70’s was a rollercoaster for Russell. Tommy took the auteur to new heights (and gave him the canvas to construct his greatest visuals) while Lisztomania gave Russell a chance to unleash his unbridled creativity on audiences, it was met with silence, but it still wasn’t as bad a film experience as the nadir of his career, the failed biopic Valentino.  These three films show what’s simultaneously so invigorating and infuriating about the auteur – how he can all at once dazzle and dizzy the viewer with his visuals as well as confuse and frustrate with his imbalance.


Tommy gives The Devils a serious run as Russell’s greatest achievement – a pastiche of pop imagery, satirical jabs at commercialism, an indictment of the commercialization of organized religions, and a collection of visual allusions to the films – both past and present – that influenced Russell. The film is campy, kitschy, pop – whatever you want to call it – and it’s a masterpiece of aural and aesthetic pomp. Tommy is also a film indebted to the pop art movement; it contains some of Russell’s most baroque and outlandish set pieces that further the themes we’ve come to expect from Russell.

Tommy is, rather famously, the story of a young kid named Tommy who witnesses the death of his father (Robert Powell) at the hands of his step-father (Oliver Reed). His mother (Ann-Margaret) and step-father tell Tommy that he didn’t see a thing, and that he won’t say anything, either. This has an effect of a kind of forced disability on the boy who represses the event and begins to believe that he is indeed deaf, blind, and dumb. When we see the adult Tommy (Roger Daltry), he is either be chastised by his religious mother (always seeking to find a cure for him – which manifests itself in some of the film’s real stand-out scenes that contain – among other things – allusions to Metropolis and A Clockwork Orange), abused by his uncle (a great, wacky performance by Keith Moon), or exploited – once he becomes pinball champion – by the ones who are supposed to love him and look after him. The film contains the usual Russell imagery and jabs at organized religion (it’s actually quite heavy-handed, but when has Russell ever been one of subtlety?); however, it’s the subtext and the allusions to camp/kitsch – and Russell’s brilliant execution of the pop/camp/kitsch aesthetic – that makes Tommy not just a masterpiece, but one of the most influential musicals ever made.

Parallels between Russell and other kitsch artists – Eduardo Paolozzi, the Independent Group, Richard Hamilton, and of course Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Warhol – are abundant, and Russell’s camp stylings are their most honed in Tommy. This is most clearly seen in the infamous “baked beans” scene. Russell was no doubt affected by the “aesthetics of plenty” that was sweeping through Britain during the late 50’s. The IG (the Independent Group – a group of British artists who embraced, and set the standard for, kitsch art in late-1950’s Britain) embraced this theory at a time when Britain was accustomed to scarcity. It was a shock to the “system” and after viewing all of Russell’s 70’s output – specifically Tommy – I have no doubt that this was a theory that Russell whole-heartedly subscribed to and was influenced by.  This later bled into the pastiche – or collage pop art – made famous by James Rosenquist.

Adding to the context of the “soap and baked beans” scene, is the fact that Russell himself – in order to make a buck, no doubt – directed soap and baked bean commercials in London, and Roger Daltry – satirizing radio ads – posed for the cover of The Who’s 1967 album “The Who Sell Out” in a bathtub filled with Heinz Baked Beans. This satirization of consumerism is not at all subtle, but it is a great avenue for Russell to showcase one of his most hilariously bizarre pieces of kitsch art. What I’m finding more and more with Russell’s films – good or bad – is that they are direct result of this late-50’s artistic movement. Consumerism, in all of its forms, was all-pervasive at the time, and no doubt it affected the British film industry which usually produced more static films (Russell himself did before shaking things up with Women in Love). Russell was a jolt to the system, and like a lot of great artists, was met with uncertainty because attacked the banality and safety of the British film industry. Now, this has been evident in most of Russell’s films I’ve reviewed so far; I have decided to wait until Tommy to bring it up, though, because I feel that Russell’s ultimate point – what he’s trying to do artistically with all of his films – is most salient with this goofy little rock opera.

Now, when I say “goofy little rock opera” I don’t mean that in a negative way (the same way I don’t see pop art/kitsch art as something negative), but I say that because I’m venturing that a lot of people view Tommy as just that – a goofy little film – when they look at the film within the context Russell’s oeuvre. I’m not entirely convinced that Tommy is Russell’s greatest film, but I do think that it is the one film where he presents his kitschy art pieces to the masses and succeeds in doing so. Russell seeks – like all good pop artists – to destroy the dichotomy of low-brow and high-brow (or avant-garde cinema which usually made a clear distinction between the two); in other words, British films, and all of their stuffiness, were under attack the minute Russell was given a camera and a budget. His films are pastiche pieces that do what all good pieces of pop art should do: they meld the “high” and the “low” to create something that’s so baroque and in-your-face that you can’t help but take notice (again, the caveat, as it always is with Russell, is that he is hit and miss with making this point clear in all of his films).

One such scene where Russell brilliantly melds “high” and “low” (and the sacred and the profane) is in the standout musical number with Eric Clapton playing the priest of a cult who idolizes celebrity. This takes shape in the form of Clapton’s followers – donning Marilyn Monroe masks – handing out pills and whiskey for communion. It’s a funny visual as Russell astutely visualizes the modern day sacrament. The scene appropriately ends with Tommy accidentally knocking over the statue of Monroe. Russell then cuts to a close-up of the fallen idols crushed face. Not only is celebrity under attack – and shown as more of a cure than a cure – so too is the idea the sex and drugs are keys to unlock stasis (creative or physical) as seen in the fabulously weird “Acid Queen” segment. Tina Turner plays a prostitute who claims she can “wake up” Tommy via acid and the promise of sex; Tommy proceeds to step inside of an iron maiden like device (constructed in a way that makes us realize we’re looking at yet another homage to Lang’s Metropolis) filled with syringes of LSD in hopes that it will “cure” him. It’s a long sequence that feels like it was made by people on acid.  These scenes continue to show Russell as the type of filmmaker akin to Fellini as he prefers to view life as a carnival, and his films’ aesthetic almost always shows this.

This adds to the theme of Tommy which is an attack on organized religions – whatever they be (really Russell is talking about “followings”) – and the commercialism that can stem from the most genuine movements. Russell, and The Who, believes that once something becomes popular, its intentions are insignificant because they will always become corrupted by people looking to capitalize on the movement. This is a never-ending cycle it seems as Russell liters his film with spherical imagery (the loading of bomb, the obvious imagery of the pinball, the opening and closing shots of the sun) that not only acts as a motif for the film’s circular narrative but for the circular nature of the beast that is consumerism. It’s an appropriately cynical tone, and Russell adds appropriately cynical, kitsch, pieces throughout to accentuate the themes.

Russell’s use of pop/kitsch aesthetics in blurring the boundaries of art is one of the subtexts that make Tommy standout; however, the film is also arguably the best melding of narrative and aesthetic in Russell’s career. The director tweaked the story a bit to make it more cinematic, but the film always feels like a rock opera, and that energy is palpable throughout the film thanks to Russell’s garish kitsch moments, Dick Bush and Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography that wonderfully captures all of Russell’s imagery and the energy of The Who (especially in the “Pinball Wizard” scene), and perhaps most impressively the editing by Stuart Baird whose stringing together of scenes (again, the fantastic “Pinball Wizard” scene comes to mind) is wonderful in making us feel like we’re a pinball bouncing us from scene to scene with an impressive kinetic energy.

On a strictly formalist level, I loved the film as a musical. Unlike Alan Parker’s film version of the rock opera The Wall by Pink Floyd, Tommy’s plot is sung through; the music doesn’t just simply play over the images. This adds to the charm of the film as we see Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson try their hardest to belt out their musical numbers. Ann-Margret, though, is quite good here (she earned an Oscar nomination); she seems to have some semblance of musical talent. But like I said, that kind of rough-around-the-edges mentality behind this musical is what makes it so endearing. Had it been like The Wall I would have been bored to tears simply because I am not much a fan of The Who. The film was also a landmark in sound editing as it was the first to be released in theaters with the new Dolby stereo track attached.

In my previous post I invoked the names of Julie Taymor and Baz Luhrmann, and I don’t think that these filmmakers would be making the movies they make today if it weren’t for films like Tommy and the audacity of its filmmaker to make such a film. Much of the MTV aesthetic – which does more harm than good – is owed to Russell. The kinetic energy found in Tommy is something that all pop and rock videos would eventually employ. Perhaps that’s not the most ideal or auspicious legacy a film could be tagged with, but again, for better and worse Russell’s influence is all over the creation, and evolution, of the rock video. Tommy continues to stand tall as a towering achievement in editing, kitsch art, and sound editing; it also continues to stand as one of the towering achievements in Russell’s oeuvre.


Russell’s take on the genesis of the pop star is nothing more than a cheap cash-in on the success of Tommy. It’s almost as if he’s trying to show people that his bombastic stylings were what made The Who’s film version of their rock opera so successful. Critically, yes, I think Russell’s film version of The Who’s album is one of the autuer’s best pieces of kitsch art; however, Lisztomania is too bombastic – too much of a carnival – to be a good film. It’s an over-satiated affair where Russell’s excesses finally get the best of him. After a while, the film begins to wear on the viewer much in the same that The Music Lovers started to feel banal despite its hyperkinetic aesthetic.  What’s evident in Lisztomania is this: the masses weren’t interested in seeing Roger Daltry star in a Ken Russell film where there wasn’t any of The Who’s music to be heard. It’s a terrible movie and a terrible experience accentuated by the fact that Russell doesn’t seem to be having his usual fun here. The film has only a small amount of moments that stand out; everything else – whether it’s further explicating the “life as carnival” motif or the pop art/kitsch aesthetic – feels as if it were just leftover ideas, retreads, from the cutting room floor of Tommy.

Not surprisingly, I learned nothing about Franz Liszt from this movie. This is another one of the Russell biopics where he takes a composer he likes and simply surrounds him with the usual garish and obscene visuals. As has been apparent in the retrospective so far (especially with these 70’s musicals and bipics), Russell can be really good when he’s on, or really quite terrible when his excesses aren’t reined in somewhat by a coherent narrative. Sadly, Lisztomania just feels lazy – an obligation, almost – and the film suffers because we don’t feel the usual Russell gusto permeating the screen like we did in Mahler or Tommy. It’s a damn shame the film feels so banal because Liszt was indeed a flamboyant showman who often played to the crowd, yet that energy is really felt throughout this odd postmodern biopic – a grotesque comic strip pastiche of historical and pop culture allusion.

I liked how Russell shows what he sees is the genesis of the pop star phase with Liszt performing to a room of squealing girls who chant his name when he arrives on stage. Also, despite how out of place and absurd it seemed, I quite liked the Charlie Chaplin sequence in which Liszt ruminates on a lost love opportunity. There was also something hilarious about the musical number where Liszt has his giant, oversized penis cut off (an allusion, perhaps, to the 1952 piece of pop art entitled “Evadne in Green Dimension” by Eduardo Paolozzi  – some kind of half-baked metaphor for his music being able to tame his desires. It’s as insane (and inane) a moment (the most insane would come later in the form of a Frankenstein’s Monster-like creature slaughtering Jews with a machine gun guitar…yep) that Russell has ever filmed, and it’s that kind of stupidity and audacity that I just didn’t feel throughout the movie – the kind of head-scratching moment after moment we come to expect from Russell.  Russell does sneak in some nice imagery here and there (but nothing we wouldn’t be able to see in one of his better movies) like the images of Elvis and Pete Townsend on a wall among the Russian saints, or the beautiful and quiet (!) scene that ends the film with Liszt in heaven playing the harp while they rag on Wagner and the influence of his music. There are other little moments like this throughout the film, but they are so few and far between all of the insanity and madness (again…what makes this film one of my least favorite of Russell’s is that it is insane and bizarre, yet it’s just so damn banal).

Ultimately, Lisztomania has to go down as one of the worst and most bizarre bipics I’ve ever seen. The film is often horribly unfunny (especially the Benny Hill-like opening that is everything I hate about British comedy), lazy, and Daltry’s acting is really something quite awful. I learned nothing about Liszt in the way I learned nothing about Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers. But is that really what Russell is aiming for? How can I fault a film for not doing something it may have had no intention of doing? That’s the dilemma with Russell’s musicals and biopics as he’s not so much interested in telling his audience about why these men were geniuses, but instead using their life – and their music – as a backdrop for his excesses. Russell’s primary – and very loose – theme that seems to be running through Lisztomania is the dichotomy of Liszt and Wagner and what their music was used for. In the case of Liszt, it was used for good (aural and emotional pleasure) whereas the music of Wagner – and his stealing of Liszt’s music which ultimately leads to him composing of the “theme of the Superman” – was used for history’s ugliest evil.  And like I’ve said numerous times already, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The music of Liszt is something I wanted to hear more of (like the Russell used Mahler’s music in his film of the same name), but instead all we get is Rick Wakeman’s (from the prog-rock band Yes; he also stars in the film as Thor…yeah it’s that kind of movie) synthesized versions of Liszt’s music. I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination, so it didn’t bother me that Russell and Wakeman modernized this classical music, but I would have preferred more of Liszt’s music as it originally is (especially considering that Lisztomania – as well as Tommy – were influential in their use of Dolby sound and how theaters showed films, and how audiences thought about sound in theaters) because it’s just so damn beautiful to listen to.

The film’s tendency to get distracted and divert into flights of extreme fancy is nothing new for Russell; it’s just sad that most of these scenes don’t work as they feel like they were plastered together like a third-graders papier-mâché project. Where Tommy was, ultimately, a piece of kitsch and camp that attacked consumerism and capitalistic art movements, Lisztomania is just an art experiment that is sometimes interesting, but by 30 minutes I was ready for it to be over. Again, had the images been presented in montage form (or the form of a coffee table book as I mentioned in part one) then I would be in agreement that there is some wonderful Russell imagery on display; however, in the context of the film (read: narrative) one just begins to feel numb to the bombardment of carnivalesque imagery. It’s surprising, too, that the editing is such a mess because Russell employs the same editor – Stuart Baird who would go on to become action film editor extraordinaire – as he did with the impeccably edited Tommy. Nothing flows here, and I think Russell is quite happy with just bouncing from one crazy idea to the next (perhaps the most bizarre involving a scene where Ringo Starr plays a priest and a very weird scene where Wagner leads children in the chant “we are the master race” – what follows is the aforementioned surreal scene where a Jewish community is slaughtered by a Wagner-created monster with a machine gun guitar).

It’s an interesting curiosity if you’re a Russell fan, and it’s a good example of just how far Russell was willing to go with a film. Lisztomania is a film that shows Russell all the way out there, and I have to wonder as I prepare to embark on his 80’s output whether or not the Russell of the 70’s ever emerges again. This film feels like a swan song to his bombastic stylings, and that if he was going to go out (this would be his last big success, but even his most ardent followers seem to think the film is too outlandish), then damn it, he was going to go out by throwing everything against the wall and showing audiences just how wild a Ken Russell film can be.


As one critic quipped when replying to what to expect from a Ken Russell biopic, they said, “They’re high on visuals and low on humanity.” Valentino is a perfect example of the cynical Russell on display. Like he did in Tommy and Lisztomania, Russell explicates what it means to be an idol (pop or otherwise) – to exist in the realm of celebrity. As we can see in his previous two films about the subject, Russell isn’t interested in taking it easy on the organized religion that is celebrity. His late-70’s output is some of his most cynical work of the decade (and why wouldn’t it be considering he was falling more and more out of favor with the “system”); however, Valentino is also one of Russell’s laziest efforts with only a few memorable moments surrounded by a patchwork, horribly inaccurate screenplay based on the life, and premature and tragic death, of the silent screen star Rudolph Valentino.

Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino (the famous Russian Tatar dance, in his only film role, who cast for his flamboyance without a care whether or not he looked anything like Valentino) is awful as the silent film star. It’s no wonder that he never made another movie after this. Russell does him no favors, either, as we’ve seen numerous times: if the actors aren’t more than capable, then Russell has no idea how to direct them. When you think of some of the best performances in Russell’s films, it’s hard to not think of actors and actresses (Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Robert Powell, Ann-Margaret, Vanessa Redgrave) who were already established or more than capable of being up to the task; however, whenever Russell was given a non-actor to deal with (or a limited actor like Richard Chamberlain in The Music Lovers) the results were less than great (Daltry in Lisztomania comes to mind). Directing actors is not what we watch a Ken Russell movie for, though, and it’s hardly the only thing that sinks Valentino. The film’s aesthetic isn’t nearly as fun or bombastic as his previous biopics (this stands out even more with all of the historical inaccuracies that plagued the film), and it’s also just too damn long even though it barely clocks in at over two hours it feels much longer.

The film does contain two moments that are pure Russell. The first moment I’m thinking of reminded me of the great “Marilyn Monroe” church segment from Tommy. In Valentino, silent movie star and camp icon Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) strolls into the funeral parlor where Valentino’s body is being shown. As she walks in, she’s followed by her entourage who lift the backend of her oversized cape as if she’s a bride walking down the aisle. The motivation for her visit is so disingenuous – it’s quite obvious she’s there for a publicity stunt – as she sees the opportunity not to pay her final respects, but so she can get a good photo-op. When she faints at the sight of Valentino’s body, she looks up at the photographers who missed the shot and ask her if she could do it again, so they can snap a picture this time. It’s a perfectly cynical Russell moment which is further punctuated by a piece of dialogue spoken to Valentino earlier in the film: “Every day is Halloween in Tinseltown.” The second moment is a very short shot at the end of the film of Valentino – after having just fallen dead a la Charles Foster Kane (although, Russell has an orange roll to the ground instead of a snow globe) – dead on a slab. It’s a brief long shot that would have carried more weight (in the “young star who is gone too soon” kind of way) had the film actually been an honest attempt at the biopic. But I can’t hold that against Russell because nothing prior to Valentino has shown that he’s even remotely interested in making a “normal” biopic.

Valentino spent a couple of weeks atop the British box office but was a huge bomb in the states. Russell himself admits this film was a mistake. In an article he wrote for the Times in 2007, Russell claimed that he was offered two films at once and had to choose between a biopic about Janis Joplin entitled The Rose, or he could direct a film about the silent film star Valentino. In the article, Russell quips, “which film would you have chosen,” and then proceeds to explain that the choice to make Valentino instead of The Rose was the biggest mistake of his career. It shows, Ken. This film is awful, and it’s no surprise that this film – which cost 5 million dollars (his most expensive) to make – was such a huge failure as it pissed off the casual fan (it’s horribly inaccurate) and the Russell follower (the director himself would ask, after walking out of a retrospective screening for the film, “What idiot made this?”) and almost killed Russell’s career. The 80’s couldn’t come soon enough.

Extra Stills:


  1. The thing about Russell and his films: one viewing is certainly not enough!

    I need to re-watch Tommy again, the pics you posted remind me just how insane that movie is! First time I saw it, I wasnt able to review it properly because it was just so freaking bizarre!

    Loved the Acid Queen segment and Elton John's scenes, those were the coolest of the songs for me.

    But I did laugh a bit whenever the main character appeared saying "feeeeel meeeee"