ISADORA DUNCAN, THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD DANTE'S INFERNO
KEN RUSSELL: THE GREAT COMPOSERS
B&W, 1962, 50m.
Starring Huw Wheldon, Peter Brett, Rowena Gregory, George McGrath
THE DEBUSSY FILM
B&W, 1965, 82m.
Starring Oliver Reed, Vladek Sheybal, Annette Robertson
SONG OF SUMMER
B&W, 1968, 73m.
Starring Max Adrian, Maureen Pryor, Christopher Gable, David Collings
KEN RUSSELL: THE GREAT PASSIONS
ALWAYS ON SUNDAY
B&W, 1965, 45m.
Starring James Lloyd, Annette Robertson, Bryan Pringle
B&W, 1966, 65m.
Starring Vivian Pickles, Peter Bowles, Alexei Jawdokimov, Murray Melvin
B&W, 1967, 87m.
Starring Oliver Reed, Judith Paris, Andrew Faulds
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), BBC Home Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
ISADORA DUNCAN, THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD
Before he hit the feature film big time with a psychedelic spy film and the groundbreaking Women in Love, director Ken Russell had already honed his energetic, sometimes feverish approach to filmmaking (and artistic biopics in particular) with a string of short films and TV productions, the latter producing several titles still regarded as some of his best work. Six key titles from his BBC days have tended to pop up together (with one notable holdout, 1970's Dance of the Seven Veils for the program Omnibus, still a holdout due to legal reasons), with their home video history encompassing some separate DVD debuts from the BFI early in the format's history, a collected (but flawed) set in the United States from the BBC itself, and best of all, two collections as dual-format Blu-ray and DVD editions from the BFI.
Russell's fondness for increasingly outrageous composer biographies became one of his most familiar trademarks with films including The Music Lovers, Mahler, and the very divisive Lisztomania. To find out how he got there, the first three-film set, The Great Composers, spotlights some of his finest '60s working kicking off with 1962's Elgar, created for the long-running series Monitor. Short and lyrical, it's a snapshot of the life of the once-obscure Edwardian composer, Sir Edward Elgar (McGrath), essentially marrying his music to shots of the English landscape and actors (with the principals mainly seen in long shot) acting out significant moments of inspiration in his life. From the joys of horseback riding as a boy through depression and illness, the film captures his lifelong love affair with music (which led to him being branded a symbol of the outdated establishment) and builds to a very memorable finale few viewers have ever forgotten. The nonstop narration (peppered with quotes from actual diary entries and letters) somehow doesn't feel like a dry history lesson, instead mingling well with the waves of music and powerful images.
Russell managed to make an even more unorthodox and experimental composer film three years later with The Debussy Film (subtitled Impressions of the French Composer), also for Monitor. "It seems as though he was a musician," intones the rain-spattered director (Sheybal) at the beginning of this multilayered exploration of Claude Debussy and his music as filtered through the making of a film about the composer after his death. Many startling fantasias (including an early female riff on St. Sebastian with an arrow-pierced model in a T-shirt) mark this as prime Russell territory, while the great and volatile Oliver Reed appears in the first of many Russell collaborations as an actor playing and being overtaken by Debussy as Sheybal narrates the story and infiltrates it as one key character, Pierre Louis. A fast-paced string of visual associations with the camera constantly moving in between skillful edits, this is a highly enjoyable and playful film with echoes of many en vogue European filmmakers of the era, particularly Truffaut and Fellini (whose 8 1/2 was still fresh in the public consciousness and gets quoted overtly here). It's also fascinating as a precursor of sorts to The Boy Friend, in which Russell found a similar solution to adapting a simple stage musical hit for the big screen.
One of the high points of Russell's career, Song of Summer offers an acting tour de force between two of the director's most memorable regular actors, Max Adrian and Christopher Gable, for a depiction of the final years in the life of composer Frederick Delius. Hearing that blindness and paralysis have rendered Delius (Adrian) unable to preserve the melodies still surging in his head, a young composer and organist named Eric Fenby (Gable), who in real life went on to score Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, to offer his services for five years to take down and play the music dictated by Delius. The process starts off turbulently, but with the aid of Delius's wife, Jelka (Pryor), the process of transcribing the compositions to paper begins to take shape in between readings from the novels of Mark Twain.
Elgar made its DVD debut from the BFI in 2003, complete with a fine audio commentary by Russell and moderator Michael Kennedy about his early TV days and the ins and outs of the Monitor staff at the time. That's carried over here along with the solo Russell commentary recorded for the 2002 DVD of Song of Summer, a fascinating study in how he adapted Fenby's biographical material about the composer and distilled it into a memorable snapshot of the creative process withstanding under highly unusual circumstances. A new audio commentary for The Debussy Film features Kevin M. Flanagan, author of Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist, making a persuasive case for it as a significant cinematic work that reinvents the biography film as a subjective, impressionistic snapshot of what made the composer significant. Much of the discussion here also concerns co-writer Melvyn Bragg, a BBC staffer who became a longtime Russell collaborator well into the early '70s. Also on the disc is a 3-minute newsreel presentation, "Land of Hope and Glory," showing Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the opening of what is now Abbey Road studios in 1931, and a 9-minute reel of home movie footage of Elgar at home and appearing at the Three Choirs Festival in the early '30s. A new 10-minute HD video interview with editor Michael Bradsell focuses on his memorable experiences on Monitor with the BBC in the early '60s as Russell was trying to buck the "talking heads" format so popular at the time (and snuck plenty of crucifixes onto the screen in Elgar despite his boss's wishes), and a 30-page insert booklet features essays by Flanagan, John Hill, John C. Tibbetts, Paul Sutton, and Michael Brooke. All three titles look excellent (correctly presented at 25fps as originally shot; there's no speed up) and zoom way past the older SD masters we've had for way over a decade (not to mention the terrible, stuttery PAL conversion on the American set), getting sharper and more vivid as they go with Song of Summer looking especially deep and rich. The LPCM 2.0 mono audio sounds great for all three, and optional English subtitles are provided. Most significantly for anyone who only has the BBC American set, Song of Summer is presented in its original full-length cut with the charming intro showing Fenby at work as a silent film organist (originally for a screening of 1937's rather anachronistic Way Out West, which proved to be legally problematic here and is substituted with the more time-appropriate BFI-owned silent short, What Next?; thanks to Michael Brooke for the info).
Other forms of artistic expression take center stage in the second three-film set, The Great Passions, which starts with the shortest title of the Russell TV titles here, 1965's Monitor production Always on Sunday (credited on screen as Henri Rousseau, Sunday Painter). James Lloyd stars as Rousseau, a widowed clerk who famously used his precious weekend time away from his job to create striking, surreal paintings of jungle and animals that would become immensely popular in Europe and America. The approach here is fairly subversive given the prestige platform of the time as it presents the main characters as something of an accidental genius who turned out a handful of enduring masterworks under highly unlikely circumstances. Russell's fondness for symmetrical framing and characters popping into frame are well in evidence here, as is his familiar raucous sense of humor. On top of that Reed turns up here again in a very different capacity, as one of the film's two narrators.
Next comes the most technically audacious title of them all, Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (shortened to Isadora on the BFI packaging), with Harold and Maude's Vivian Pickles having a blast as the legendary, trendsetting 1920s dancer whose unorthodox, freewheeling style and teaching methods made her a toast of high society before her macabre, untimely death. (The same story was made as a more traditional feature film with Vanessa Redgrave in 1968, entitled Isadora.) The American-born dancer found her calling in Europe and the Soviet Union where her private performances from the wealthy soon expanded to schooling many young girls in the creation of expressive art, coupled with a unique fashion sense inspired by her visit to Greece. Russell's film begins on a frenetic note with sped-up action including a surprising naked dance (indeed, there's more artistic nudity here than you'd ever expect in a 1966 TV production) and whirling through some highlights of her life; after that it rarely slows down as her revolutionary politics and sexual tastes are covered as she spreads her dance gospel across Europe (with some stock footage including Leni Riefenstahl clips adding to the patchwork effect). Pickles is quite an enthusiastic wonder here, and though Russell clearly has an obvious conflicted attitude about her headstrong and sometimes selfish approach to life, there's little chance you'll be bored for a minute. It's also essential for Russellphiles as he would go on to directly quote this film in his later Women in Love and The Boy Friend with amusing results.
Finally we get to the longest and most widely screen title, Dante's Inferno, with Reed getting his largest and most challenging role of his early Russell gigs here as Dante Rossetti, the pioneering Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter as well as brother of another major poet, Christina Rossetti. The focus in this Omnibus production is his relationship with model Lizzie Siddal (Paris), with whom he carries a charged but platonic relationship. An addiction to laudanum, a fling with another model, an unfortunate marriage, and a tragic fate for Lizzie (don't worry, it's given away in the chilling opening sequence) become the framework for a tumultuous collage of highlights from Rossetti's visual and written work as well as those of his peers, including a recreation of Millais' Ophelia. Though it's laced with moments of wild humor, this is probably the closest thing to a genuine horror film in the Russell canon until The Devils (not surprisingly, also starring Reed), with a dark and moody photographic style reminiscent of Hammer and Universal horror films.
This disc features another, longer (17 mins.) interview with Bradsell more specifically about his and Russell's time with Omnibus, where the director trusted him more to leave him alone to cut without supervision and Reed and Russell had developed a singular shorthand for each scene. The 30-minute "Late Night Line Up: Russell at Work" (previously seen on the BBC set) features an engrossing look at Russell during the production of Isadora; Russell chats frequently about his thoughts on music in film and why he does biographies, and the making-of footage is pretty priceless (including shots of hordes of Isadora's little students charging the camera). Writer Brian Hoyle contributes audio commentaries for both Always on Sunday (including some interesting facts about the original plan for it to be a portrait of two artists) and Dante's Inferno (both a worthwhile crash course in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the dense visual language Russell employs to convey the intensity of the real-life story), while Paul Sutton tackles Isadora both with a solo commentary (mostly a scholarly breakdown of how it fits in with the visual motifs of Russell's cinema) and an "alternate audio track" featuring his interviews with seemingly every single person who worked in front of and behind the camera on the film (some of it very muffled with several speakers unidentified, but it's definitely worth hearing). The liner notes booklet comes with new essays by Hoyle, Brooke, Sutton, John Wyver, Kevin Jackson, and Christophe Van Eecke, Brian Hoyle. Again the films look far better here than their SD predecessors, with the earlier Sunday looking a bit cheaper and rougher than the other two (which are immaculate and look pretty spectacular). It's worth noting that owners of the old BBC DVD set might want to hang on to it for the exclusive Russell video interview conducted for it (which is okay but slightly demonstrative of his declining mental faculties), but this greatly expanded and radically improved presentation is likely to remain the definitive edition for these wonderful gems for a very long time to come.