Friday, 25 March 2016

Ken Russell - The Great Composers (1962, 1965, 1968)

Released in tandem with the BFI’s THE GREAT PASSIONS, here is another three-film set of Ken Russell’s early documentary works, this one focusing on composers and made for the BBC arts series OMNIBUS and MONITOR.

In order of production ELGAR (1962) is first. A 56 minute film that chronicles the life of the composer, with images accompanied by a Huw Wheldon voiceover. Russell manages to make the Malvern Hills of Elgar’s birthplace look stunning in black and white, and there's plenty of music as well. Compared with some of Russell’s later efforts, ELGAR is a more subdued and straightforward piece, but it's also extremely informative and well put together.

THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965) is entirely different. A hugely ambitious, ethereal, reality-bending attempt at presenting the composer and his music, the film stars Oliver Reed as an actor playing Debussy in a film about his life, and Vladek Sheybal as the director of the biopic. THE DEBUSSY FILM veers between the ‘reality’ of the behind-the-scenes activity during the shooting of the film, and scenes from the film itself. It’s easier to watch than describe (often the way with Ken Russell!) and it does make one sad that television seems to have lost this degree of ambitious creativity.

Best of the lot, though, is SONG OF SUMMER (1968). This evoked a keen sense of nostalgia in me, if only for a time when one could happen upon something like this showing on British television in the 1960s and 1970s, with subject matter one might initially feel quite indifferent to, but by the end you'd feel as if you’d just watched the best thing on television that year. 

SONG OF SUMMER is remarkable. It's the story of the last five years in the life of the composer Frederick Delius, blind and paralysed and desperate to write more music. Salvation comes in the form of Eric Fenby (who co-wrote the script with Russell) who travels from his native home of Scarborough to spend his days getting Delius’ music down on paper. Russell is appropriately restrained here, letting the acting shine through. Max Adrian as Delius is terrific (it’s his best ever performance) and SONG OF SUMMER is a tribute to the triumph of genius, persistence and human love and cooperation overcoming the insidious and inevitable processes of disease and decay. I found it extremely affecting, and of all the material presented here, SONG OF SUMMER alone is worth the price of the disc.
            Extras include three minutes of actual Elgar footage from 1931 with him conducting the LSO at the opening of the Abbey Road studios, as well as nine minutes of him at home & at the Three Choirs Festival. There are also Ken Russell commentaries for ELGAR and SONG OF SUMMER, and a new commentary by Kevin Flanagan for THE DEBUSSY FILM. There’s also a ten minute interview with Russell editor Michael Bradsell and a 30 page booklet with new writing on the films, all making this another must-have set from the BFI. Well done, chaps. 

Ken Russell's THE GREAT COMPOSERS is out on a dual format DVD & Blu-ray set from the BFI from 28th March 2016

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