Ken Russell's curious legacy of classical composer bio-pics
Ken Russell, the brilliant and brilliantly controversial English film director, died Sunday at the age of 84.
Movie buffs, I imagine, will remember him chiefly for such works as "Women in Love" and "The Devils." Classical music fans will also remember him for his string of curious, often bizarre bio-pics of composers, including Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Elgar and Delius. (Mr. Russell's film on Richard Strauss never ...
saw the light of day, since he played up the composer's Nazi associations so strongly that the Strauss estate prohibited use of the music.)
I still recall the shock the first time I saw "The Music Lovers," Mr. Russell's version of Tchaikovsky's life, starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson. At least that one had a certain entertainment (and trace of camp) value, along with some splendid scenes that really did bring characters and events into sharp relief.
With "Mahler," Mr. Russell's imagination went into hyper-drive and pretty much destroyed the final result. Poor Robert Powell had the great fortune to look rather like Mahler, but was stuck in such an awful mix of history and fantasy that he never had a chance.
Still, I admired Mr. Russell's interest in great classical composers and his willingness to seek a cinematic means of bringing them to life. Here's the trailer to "Mahler," followed by a nutty dream sequence from "The Music Lovers" that ends with Tchaikovsky literally being put on a pedestal: