Ken Russell’s 1965 BBC film The Debussy Film is one of the filmmaker’s most striking works—and one of the most historically significant. Russell had already made some important TV films by 1965, including his immensely popular Elgar (1962). Plus, he’d made one theatrical feature, the massively underrated French Dressing (1964). Two things he had not done: He had yet to have his fateful meeting with Oliver Reed, the actor who would come to be most associated with him, and he had yet to convince the BBC to let him create an actual biographical film with actors. Both were accomplished by The Debussy Film.
The impact of the meeting with Reed was immediate and strong. Reed, whose career had progressed from Hammer horror pictures to Michael Winner films, stated quite plainly, “Hammer gave me my start. Michael Winner gave me my craft. Ken Russell gave me my art.” And Reed gave something back: a string of remarkable performances and an often volatile friendship that would last until the actor’s death in 1999. It’s hard to imagine Dante’s Inferno (1967), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975) or this film without Oliver Reed. And even if you can, the films wouldn’t be the same.
The Debussy Film was Russell’s sneaky way of making a biopic by pretending not to make a biopic. Rather than make a film about composer Claude Debussy, Russell would make a film about making a film about Debussy. Instead of having Reed play Debussy, Reed would play an actor playing Debussy in a biographical movie being made by an unnamed film director (Vladek Sheybal, who would again serve as Russell’s on-screen alter ego six years later in The Boy Friend). It’s a perfect setup, because it not only allows Russell to make a biographical film within the larger film, it allows him to explore the very nature of what could be done with the form. It also allows him to make a certain amount of fun of the prevalent ideas of academic biography—and to toss in a couple moments (like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian) clearly designed to raise the hackles of the BBC and frighten the horses.
But there’s actually another level to The Debussy Film—and it’s perhaps one of the key elements to understanding Russell’s work. The music and the character of Debussy begin to find their way into the actor Reed is playing. His personal life starts taking on aspects of Debussy, which in turn colors his own romantic life. The levels become increasingly complex by way of conveying the power of art to transform a person.
And there’s the music itself. Russell gives full play to Debussy’s music—and his own reaction to and interpretation of it. Many of the scenes are breathtakingly beautiful and use the music in unusual ways that cause the viewer to listen to it in contexts not normally associated with the pieces, making them fresh and vibrant. Russell isn’t yet to the point of The Music Lovers (1970) where he allows the music to shape and drive the whole film, but he’s well on his way. It’s a chance to see an artist coming into what will soon be his full power.