It’s July 3. Of course, I’m going to write about Ken Russell—it’s his birthday. (It’s his 84th birthday, if you’re keeping track.) Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that three things will happen today. I’ll write something about Ken. I’ll call him up to offer birthday greetings. I’ll watch a Ken Russell movie—or two. It follows as the night follows the day. And as is often the case, I’ve grown reflective—that we may attribute to my own aging.
I “discovered” Ken Russell in June of 1975 when I was 20. Now, at that point, Ken had been making films for some considerable time. If you want to be technical about it and go all the way back to his amateur films, he’d been making films since I was two years old—starting with a short called Peepshow in 1956. (It’d be years before I saw it. Now, anyone can see Peepshow in three parts on You Tube. And it’s astonishing how everything—from the sense of nostalgia to the big close-ups to the feeling of melancholy to the aggressive editing techniques—is already there in incipient form.) Even when he’d broken into the international feauture film scene, movies like Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), and The Devils (1971) didn’t penetrate the artistic wilderness of central Florida—and I wouldn’t have been old enough to see them anyway. The Boy Friend (1971) got as close as Tampa. I don’t recall Savage Messiah (1972) or Mahler (1974) coming around at all.
It wasn’t until Tommy (1975) came along that my path crossed his. And it’s only fair to note that Ken’s name wasn’t the selling point—nor was the source album. My best friend had been very keen on the Who album and played it for me in 1970 when we were rooming together a USF. I wasn’t whelmed. (I’m still not that fond of the original album, but I’ve learned to like it—at least in parts.) But in 1975 I was very much an Elton John fan and his recording of “Pinball Wizard” on the radio sold me on seeing the movie. I’ve been over this before, but the point here is a little different since it’s grounded on where I was with movies at that time.
My guess is that it was just as well that I hadn’t seen the earlier films at that point. With the possible exception of The Boy Friend—the replication of Busby Berkeley numbers and the inclusion of bits of plot and dialogue from 42nd Street (1933) would have appealed to me—I don’t think I was ready for these movies until 1975. Having been self-taught in the realm of movies during the nostalgia boom of the 1960s and early 1970s, I was something of a classicist—though not a traditionalist. That simply means that I’d wandered through the classics more or less on my own, and found that very few of the movies I found to be great were even included in those “50 Great/Classic/Best” films books. Put another way, I’d be surprised if you could turn up another 17-year-old who washed dishes the summer after high school graduation to finance a 30 minute movie in the style of Ernst Lubitsch with an all Maurice Chevalier (1929-32 recordings) soundtrack.
While I had liked quite a few contemporary movies—mostly what I’d now call “British Invasion” films—I was much more at home with movies of the past. It wasn’t until late 1972 that I really started taking new or even newer movies into account. By 1975 I was ready for Ken Russell. Would that have been the case earlier? I’m not entirely sure it would have. Considering that the movies I liked best—the works of Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Josef von Sternberg, James Whale, early Hitchcock—were in a similarly stylish, flamboyant key, I might have responded positively. But it’s not a given by any means.
I might, of course, have gone back to them, but I’m not wholly convinced. In any case, I’m not sorry for the order in which all this played out. Seeing that stark main title with the words, “A Film by Ken Russell, Tommy by the Who,” followed by what is in my book one of the great images in cinema and seeing them cold with no idea of what they were announcing was the perfect introduction.
Yeah, it was a little like coming into the middle of the movie of Ken’s career. Of course, what I didn’t know—among a lot of other things I didn’t know (hey, I was 20 for Clapton’s sake)—was that I was coming in on artist at height of his powers, riding the crest of a wave that—artistically, if not always commercially—he’d been riding for some considerable time. I also didn’t know the impact this was going to have on my own future.
In keeping with the idea that this all came about when it should have come about, it’s interesting that it dovetailed with a year or two in which Ken’s earlier films—at least the theatrical ones—were turning up with felicitous frequency. Was it merely coincidence that this should happen just as I was trying to see them? After all, I kept very close tabs on what was at the rep houses and universities during those years, and these titles hadn’t shown up before. Coincidence? Oh, very probably. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Tommy introduced a lot of younger viewers to his work and it was natural that the market was primed for more. Whatever the truth, it felt a lot like the movie gods were smiling down on me.
It may have been inevitable that I’d have gotten to Ken’s movies. He’d already done movies on two of my favorite composers—Tchaikovsky and Mahler—and was making one on another, Franz Liszt. I didn’t exactly know Liszt was a favorite composer at that time, because I was still puzzling out the composers used on the soundtrack of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat at that point. It wouldn’t be long before Ken had me working out the scores on his films. That became an easier process when I could simply ask him (quite a few years down the road).
Then, too, a lot of the appeal in Ken’s work came from his ability to—no, his genius for matching music and image, and that’s one of my favorite things about movies in general. Combine that with his overall visual sense and you have me hooked. Throw in his sense of humor and the absurd and it’s an unbeatable combination. And, no, it probably didn’t hurt in the least that the films upset people. I like movies that shake people up a little—even a lot. And we are here talking about the man who in Lisztomania (1975) had Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) rise from the dead as a combination of Hitler and the Frankenstein monster, brandishing an electric-guitar-machine-gun with a power cord made of barbed wire. That certainly got a reaction. Perhaps this is where the amazing criticism that the film “suffers” from “excessive vision” comes from. Ironically, the seven hour German film Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) opens with Hitler (in a toga) rising from Wagner’s grave, and I’ve never heard it accused of excessive vision.
But, you know, none of this is what has kept me as enthused as I’ve been for the past 36 years. And I sensed this pretty early on. Sure, Ken’s movies are flashy and outrageous and fun, but they’re a lot more than that. They’re also films with moments of subtle and quiet beauty. In this respect, they perhaps more resemble symphonies than what we think of as films. I don’t consider that a problem with the movies. I consider it a problem with how we tend to think of films. What I find especially interesting is that very often it’s the quiet moments that linger in my mind more than the big ones. Not to downplay the glorious recreations of Busby Berkeley, but perhaps my favorite thing in The Boy Friend is Twiggy singing “All I Do Is Dream of You” while watching Christopher Gable from the flies.
None of these things are really what’s at the very heart of my love for Ken’s films. It goes much deeper and is the thing that seems to me to be the most overlooked aspect of his work—and that’s the sense of a love of life and a love of the human spirit. When all is said and done, that’s the real selling point for me—that all the films, one way or another, are essentially about the indomitability of the human spirit. I noted this at the 2005 Asheville Film Festival when we gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award. That’s always there with whatever else there is That’s the real secret of Ken’s genius—and that’s what keeps me coming back to them again and again. I imagine that it always will. Then again, Ann-Margret in baked beans doesn’t hurt in the least.