Nov 282011
 

You may recall an earlier discussion of the fascinating Ken Russell film Tommy. The controversial director has died at 84. While I find most of his films head-scratchingly badly amusing, his exaggerated, well-lit, creepily sexually charged film bios of music figures probably was highly influential on 1980s music video directors. As we reflect on his well-documented and discussed work on The Who’s rock opera Tommy and review some of his other likely influential works, let’s keep in mind some of the “drop-the-cat” video moments in the heyday of rock music videos that may not have been possible without Russell’s unique vision. And let’s keep in mind this quote from the director, which speaks for the spirit driving even his most laughable efforts—not to mention our own:

“I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” he wrote. “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”

I’ve never seen Lisztomania, but I wish I could say I had. I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it today, but I really should have jumped on the opportunity to watch Roger Daltrey acting in another movie. The following scene is just a taste of what I’ve been missing all these years:

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  25 Responses to “Ken Russell, Music Video Pioneer, Dead”

  1. I might have been one of the few who actually saw Lisztomania at the theater on its initial release. I watched it again on my cable’s OnDemand and trust me – the film is really bad but so over-the-top that it makes Tommy seem tame by comparison. Besides the huge cock-riding scene that Mr. Mod featured, you get…

    1. Roger as Liszt gets sucked up inside a Russian princess’ vagina.
    2. Liszt gets in a near-naked swordfight with a bewigged foppish Frenchman as comic hoedown music provides a running commentary.
    3. A half-dozen Aryan nude virgins are brutally deflowered by a hulking Jewish monster as a bunch of costumed children look on.
    4. Richard Wagner bites Liszt’s neck and drinks his blood.
    5. Rick Wakeman (who wrote the dreadful Liszt-inspired soundtrack) makes a cameo as a silver-faced Viking.
    6. Ringo Starr as the Pope.
    7. A zombie Frankenstein Hitler lays a town to waste.

    It’s worth watching once just for the weirdness factor. Also, Roger does not display any real acting chops. By the way, Ken Russell also directed the semi-cult sci-fi picture Altered States.

  2. I know I’ll end up regretting the road you are sending me down, but I thank you in advance.

  3. Happiness Stan

    I was trying to think of a film of his which I really liked, as opposed to sat through with a sense that I ought to be enjoying it, and had forgotten about Altered States – I’ve not watched it for many, many years (and can’t remember much about it), but saw it at the cinema two or three times when it was released, so it must have done something for me at the time.

    He made half a dozen documentaries about classical musicians for fairly highbrow arts spots on British telly in the 1960s, which I watched when some of them were repeated in the early 1980s, and they were very stylish and watchable.

    He was always good value when he popped up on chat shows either on the TV or the radio.

  4. tonyola

    Monty Python made fun of Ken Russell in this sketch…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBcQsm56Jtk

  5. I think it doesn’t go too far to say that many of his movies aren’t much more than extended music videos/visual weirdness extravaganzas. Russell wasn’t always entirely indifferent to plot (most of Altered States is at least relatively coherent) but he often just doesn’t care about the story except as a vehicle for making seriously trippy psychological or gross-out visuals. In that sense he’s essential to the whole who-gives-a-shit-what-it’s-about approach that is so crucial to the music video from the beginnings of MTV and on.

  6. misterioso

    Nailed it.

  7. misterioso

    He is, without a doubt, one of the worst filmmakers of all time. Ed Wood, you are no Ken Russell.

  8. I disagree. You have to consider his films in the light of what he’s trying to do with them, not with any more conventional standards of “good film making,” which I agree that he certainly is not trying to achieve, and doesn’t achieve.

  9. Do we also need to consider the zip code in which his movies are set? (Sorry, old joke!)

  10. No. You need to consider what he’s trying to do and not evaluate it according to your own standards of what you think he should be doing. No need to apologize for the joke; it’s the thinking that needs work.

  11. misterioso

    So what we need to do is suspend all critical thinking. Sorry, not buying any.

  12. No, you would know the joke is an excellent one…if you were inside my head and knew all that I was getting at.

    Listen, I’m not the guy arguing that Ken Russell’s films are falling short of any of my own standards. I’m the guy taking the opportunity of Russell’s death to credit him as a visionary of rock video making. I’m not the first person to make this claim in print, but I may have been the first person to have done so this morning. I think many of his movies (well, among the half dozen I’ve seen) “suck” on many defensible levels, but I do think they look cool and are hard to turn away from, even for “good-bad” reasons. If that’s what he was shooting for, more power to him!

  13. tonyola

    I watched Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend on TCM not long back, and while it was high camp, much of it was enjoyable with some wonderful set pieces. He was playing with visuals without being quite so willfully bizarre as his later musicals. I’d call Russell an undisciplined talent who wasn’t afraid to go over the edge into bad taste.

  14. tonyola

    As an afterthought, it would have been interesting to see Ken Russell direct the Pink Floyd The Wall feature film. Since the story and Scarfe’s animations are already over the top, they might have been very well suited to Russell’s style.

  15. tonyola’s suggestion that Russell could have done an interesting job with The Wall is a good one. Thanks for picking up on that closing question I posed.

  16. BigSteve

    You mean we should accept the fact that he was trying to suck?

  17. The comparison of Russell to Ed Wood is ludicrous. You may not be able to take his over the top style (or you may just hate it, as several here seem to), but he WAS NOT an *INEPT* filmmaker…just an eccentric, out-of-control one, and there IS a difference. I’m not even a huge fan of most of his stuff, but I can think of about 5 or 6 of his films that I really enjoy (not in a snarky way, either)…and numerous memorable scenes from even the bad ones which I find enjoyable in their nuttiness. I also think Mod has a valid point re: Russell’s influence on music video. I just don’t get all the vitriol: he may have been far from the greatest, but he was also far from “one of the worst filmmakers of all time” – if that’s your belief, I’d suggest maybe you haven’t seen enough films to make that call…Either way, you won’t have to put up with this scourge to your, I’m sure, beyond reproach taste in cinema ever again…the man is now DEAD.

  18. misterioso

    BB, I am not going to compare film lists with you, ok? “Inept” was not my word. Russell was terrible in a totally different ways than Wood, I would agree with that. Frankly, I have more tolerance for Wood’s brand of awfulness, which seems rooted in ineptitude and lack of resources, than Russell’s, which is rooted in absurd pretensions, bombast, kitsch, and a 12-year-old’s desire to provoke outrage. (And not a particularly clever 12 year old, either.) And, for my money, a legacy built on one’s impact on rock videos isn’t much to hang your hat on. Peace to his bones.

  19. That’s what I thought you were doing at first too, Mod, then it seemed like you were defending the idea that he was one of the “worst film makers of all time,” which indeed is ludicrous. I absolutely agree that what he did was a big influence on rock video–the illogical, almost story-less flow of over the top images, etc.

  20. Absolutely. Isn’t it in fact fair to say that Russell’s work, for better and worse, was a crucial influence on the film version of The Wall?

  21. No, “inept” was my word; if I’d thought it was yours I would have put quotation marks around it. I was trying to emphasize the word because of your comparison to Wood, who *was* inept ( and it’s an ineptitude I love, but that *was* his problem, if one wants to look at it in those terms). If the two were “terrible in totally different ways”, a logical comparison can’t really be made – it’s apples and oranges…which was my point. It would be the flip-side of a coin comparing the greatness of Billy Wilder to the greatness of Luis Bunuel…Yeah, they were both great filmmakers, but other that the fact that they worked in film, you can’t really compare the two. The reasoning behind your despising Russell’s films is really beside the point, and isn’t really worth debating, like most matters of taste, but I still will stand by my statement that Russell isn’t anywhere near being “one of the worst filmmakers of all time”, even if, at his worst, he *does* fall prey to many of the criticisms you laid out in your last comment. Also, I don’t see much worth in most rock videos, either, but I see where Mod is coming from with that point, and I acknowledged it, that’s all.

    So, you find no worth in Russell’s films and I do (some of them, anyway), and we both have perfectly valid reasons for our respective outlooks, but my main problem was the hyperbolic way you first expressed your distaste, and the comparison you made of two bodies of work that, for all their similarities, might as well have originated on two different planets.

  22. misterioso

    BB, fine and all and no harm. You understand, I am sure, that I wasn’t actually proposing a doctoral dissertation comparing Wood and Russell’s respective oeuvres. Though, if I were, it would most likely be called “Glen or Glenda or Glenda Jackson? A Comparison of the Cinematic Suckiness of Ed Wood and Ken Russell.” (Future scholars, please cite this accurately.) I was merely attempting a witticism. And while I agree that their films suggest that they probably originated on two different planets, I would have to infer that on neither of those planets does there seem to be intelligent life.

  23. And my point is that there was a lot more to his work than you’re giving him credit for – that he had more value as an artist. Then again, I guess only know-nothing idiots like these two clowns (and myself, apparently) can see any artistic merit in the guy’s work: http://youtu.be/Nd_fwCWNeq8

  24. misterioso

    No worries, BB. It is hardly the first time I’ve been amazed by intelligent people’s ability to see merit in dreck.

  25. So, I guess this means you won’t be buying the restored cut of “The Devils” when it’s finally released, huh?

 
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