Ken Russell, one of film's great imaginers of music
Some years ago in London, at the premiere of John Cage's Europeras 3 & 4," I bumped into Ken Russell in the press queue. He complained that he had been marginalized in film and television, where it was becoming next to impossible to do anything imaginative.
He had lately been staging operas and raised so many hackles that he didn't think he'd have much more of a career in that. So he thought he'd become a music critic.
But that's what you've always been," I said.
Oh, you noticed," he replied as he headed for the Champagne.
I don't know that Russell, who died in London on Sunday at 84, ever actually wrote any reviews. He did write some books about composers once his film career had tanked. They include Elgar: The Erotic Variations" and Brahms Gets Laid." They are not what he is going to be remembered for.
But neither do I predict that Russell ultimately will be known as the chief defiler of celebrities of the past and present," which is what Pauline Kael called him. Russell was not only one of the most musical of all filmmakers, he was one of film's great imaginers of music. No one made music films so infused with, so intoxicated by, music.
Yes, he could be puerile. He portrayed Liszt as a sex-crazed rock star pursued by a giant penis. He showed Richard Strauss cavorting with Hitler so salaciously that the censorious Strauss estate has managed to get that particular television documentary pulled from circulation. The neurotic, erotic carryings on of his Mahler and Tchaikovsky don't qualify as proper musicology.
But Russell always started with the musichow it made him feel, how it took over his life. Music was, for him, the key to our inner lives. It gave us permission to fantasize, to dream, to be extravagant. That is what he showed. He said he made films to get pictures music created out of his mind.