Ken Russell—The Director That Was Bigger Than Life Itself
Ken Russell was a director like no other. Known among the cult film world for The Who’s Tommy and its follow up with Roger Daltrey—Lisztomania, he was universally loved or hated due to his special knack for over-indulgence and controversial subject matter. He claimed that his “indulgences” in film all had purpose. He would make sure that the meaning did not detract too wildly from the story but rather enhance it, and never do it for the sake of indulgence alone.
His early films are some of his best and showcase some great stars. For years they were hard to find. Thanks to the Warner Archive and the Kaleidescape Store, you can see some of his greatest movies.
A beautiful love story showcasing the career of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, whose life was tragically cut short in World War I. It was an interesting piece for Russell as he loved to film people who did not fit into society. Both Henri and his love Sophie and their anti-establishment behavior fit the mold. Note that this is one of the first films to feature Helen Mirren–she gives a memorable performance![clear]
This was one of Russell’s biggest hits in the United States, written by Paddy Chayefsky. He furthered his exploration of sound that he began in Tommy, this time using “Megasound”—towers of giant speakers installed in theaters to give a shaking booming sound that made it seem like the walls were coming down! This stars William Hurt and Blair Brown. For one of Ken Russell’s most mainstream films, it is quite unusual.[clear]
When Ken Russell was making his notorious film The Devils, he was accosted in a café while having lunch with several friends, including model/actress Twiggy. The film had a scandalous reputation on the set with claims stating that “nun orgies” and other abominations were being filmed daily. A reporter snidely commented, “Are you going to have poor innocent little Twiggy dressed up as a Nun?” Russell quipped back, “No. She is to star in my next film–the hit musical, The Boy Friend.” It was a show that had been quite popular in the West End for the last decade. Russell intended it to be a joke, but the next day was threatened by lawyers from MGM. He had apparently committed libel, as he did not have the rights, but they would forgive him if he would make the film after all.
The Boy Friend is an amazingly colorful homage to the Busby Berkeley musicals of the early sound era. The story follows a small troupe of actors putting on the musical of The Boyfriend, and a famous Hollywood director decides to visit the show. The musical numbers become fantasy sequence as everyone imagines they are going to Hollywood.[clear]
Franz Liszt was perhaps the first pop star, with audiences going wild and girls throwing items of clothing on stage when he performed—all in the 1800s. Ken Russell took this concept and went for the grand prize of outrageousness for his follow up to Tommy. Roger Daltrey stars as the lead character, and gives his all. With bawdy humor and libidinous props, there is nowhere this period film doesn’t go. If you translate the images, you can actually pick out pieces and string together a little bit of true history.[clear]
Ah “Uncle Ken”… You are missed. Wherever you are I thank you for the many films you left us to enjoy.
These films and much more are on sale this week in our Cult Fan Favorite Collection.