Remembering Ken Russell, Neo-Renaissance Man

By Victoria Looseleaf

He was an incurable rabble-rouser, er, Romantic. Why else would Ken Russell, who died this week at home in England, at 84, make so many movies about artists and the creative process? His ability to make high culture for the masses was way ahead of its time, with films such as 1970’s The Music Lovers (about Tchaikovsky), 1974’s Mahler and 1975’s Lisztomania, with Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt and Ringo Starr as the pope, were precursors to music videos and mash-up scenarios, aural, visual and otherwise. Then there’s the acid-infused Russell film, Tommy, based on the Who’s concept album/rock opera, also from 1975 (below, with Ann-Margret, etal), that did much to blow minds.

It took one to blow one, so to speak. How, then, did his come to be?

A lonely child and son of a shoe-store owner, Russell spent much time at the movies. He also staved off major bullying incidents while at school by mounting amateur productions of – not Fred & Ginger musicals – but those of Dorothy Lamour (at right). Russell could have been headed for major dragdom, but he married four times and fathered eight children (though he still could have preferred sarongs to suits).

After brief stints in the Merchant Navy and Royal Air Force, Russell moved to London where he, yes, studied dance, then photography, the latter pointing the way towards filmmaking. It was his love of dance, music and art that led him to make numerous documentaries at the BBC, where he began working in 1959.  Subjects included such disparate composers as Elgar, Prokoviev and Debussy, the painter Henri Rousseau and the grandmother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan. (Below, Vivian Pickles in Isadora, The Biggest Dancer in the World.)


Outré is as outré does, and Russell had eccentricity in spades. His breakthrough film, Women in Love, a 1969 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, actually featured an extended nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. Glorious! It also earned Russell his one Oscar nomination for best director, with Glenda Jackson snagging the gold statuette for best actress.



We adored Russell’s homage to 30’s musicals, The Boy Friend (1971), with Twiggy and Tommy Tune (below); and his hiring ballet superstar, Rudolf Nureyev, to play the lead in 1977’s Valentino, the silent screen star, was an inspired bit of casting. (At right, with Michelle Phillips)


If he seemed obsessed with composers and sex, authors and sex, devils and sex, and whatever and sex, well, why not. His philosophy was “critics be damned,” including Pauline Kael, who once called him a “shrill, screaming gossip.” Then there was the recent Joseph Lanza biography, Phallic Frenzy, in which the author gives his subject a massive drubbing. Bah! We love the notion that Russell stayed true to his vision, however oblique, twisted, dark, musical, dancerly or outright blasphemous (hello, The Devils). We also marvel that he wrote six novels, including Beethoven Confidential and the deliciously titled, Brahms Gets Laid.


Put us on an island, please, with Ken Russell’s complete oeuvre – his short films, docs, feature films, columns, books and the like, though we would need some Bach thrown in for good measure, particularly Glenn Gould’s recording of The Goldberg Variations. Now that would be a long, strange trip…and we’d never be bored!

About Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, KUSC-FM radio, Dance Magazine, Performances Magazine and other outlets. She roams the world covering dance, music, theater, film, food and architecture. Have pen - and iPad - will travel! Her latest book, "Isn't It Rich? A Novella In Verse" is now available on Amazon. Thank you for reading! Cheers...
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