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Ken Russell: The Great Composers

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    Ian Jane
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  • Ken Russell: The Great Composers



    Released by: BFI
    Released on: March 28th, 2016.
    Director: Ken Russell
    Cast: Oliver Reed, Huw Wheldon
    Year: Various
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movies:

    With this three film collection the BFI offer up on Blu-ray for the first time some of the late, great Ken Russell's early films made for the BBC.

    The first of the three films is 1962's Elgar, which was originally made for the BBC series Monitor. The shortest film in the set follows the life of English composer Sir Edward Elgar who is played here by George McGrath. The film is, in grand Russell style partially fictionalized but no less interesting for it. Huw Wheldon narrates Elgar's story as Russell's camera captures all manner of beautiful mountain and countryside footage.

    The end result is fifty minutes of Elgar's music front and center, with the visuals doing more to explore the feelings conjured up by that music than to really lay down the nitty-gritty biographical details one might expect. There is a beginning - we see Elgar as a young boy enjoying horseback riding - a middle part - and then when illness sets in, an end but this is hardly a traditional narrative. It works though. The film pulls you into its beautiful world of high contrast black and white travelogue footage set to some rousing compositions. Wheldon's narration gives it the context it needs to serve as more than just a moving painting set to music while McGrath is easy to appreciate in the lead role.

    In 1965, Russell made The Debussy Film, which somehow manages to outdo the first picture in terms of strangeness. The second last film that Russell would direct for Monitor (Always On Sunday would follow shortly) is definitely more ambitious in terms of scope, and given the fact that it stars none other than Oliver Reed (his first collaboration with Russell) in the lead role as Claude Debussy, well, those familiar with Reed's style already know this one will carry some serious impact.

    In the film, Vladek Sheybal plays a director making a film about Debussy's life with Reed cast as the star. As the production sets out to begin filming, Reed's actor begins to relate to the picture's subject in increasingly personal ways. As this happens, the viewer is subjected to a series of unusual fantasy sequences that tie into the composer's music and Reed's character seems to become increasingly lost in his role.

    Reed is great here but just as important to the effectiveness of the picture are the visuals, which here we can see beginning to go over the top in the manner that Russell would later become quite well known for. Religious symbolism comes into play here while again, we have some narration to tie it all together and give it the context required to make sense. Sheybal also plays Debussy's associate, Pierre Louis, and depicts the character as quite lecherous, while Annette Robertson plays Debussy's lady friend, Gaby Dupont, very much of the era in which this film was made rather than the era in which Debussy lived. It's all quite interesting but so too is it very much a product of its time. Russell's penchant for using music in consistently perfect ways is also a large part of what makes this feature length picture as watchable as it is.

    Last but not least is 1968's Song Of Summer, which was made for a documentary series called Omnibus. There is a general consensus that this is one of, if not the, best of Russell's television films and after seeing it presented in this set, it's tough to argue with that. On par with some of his better theatrical films, the story follows Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable) as he puts together his book about trying to befriend and aid a blind Frederick Delius (Max Adrian). Given that Delius also suffered from paralysis at this point in his life, it's a sure bet that Fenby's task would be a difficult one but he's bound and determined to preserve the dying man's music for future generations.

    Things get off to a rocky start but soon Delius' dutiful but mistreated wife Jelka (Maureen Pryor) sees and understands the importance of what Fenby is hoping to accomplish. With her help, the scribe is able to get the composer to eventually warm up to him enough that they're able to find enough common ground between them to make this work.

    Based on Fenby's 1936 book Delius as I knew him, this seventy-three minute piece creates a stirring depiction of the last five years of Delius' time on this planet. Russell dials things down a bit here, the film has fewer of the director's surrealist touches than Elgar or The Debussy Film, but the performances offered up by both Gable and Adrian are so damn good that the film will pull you in regardless. There is a tenderness and sensitivity on display in the relationship that builds in the film that feels very natural, making the movie all the better for it. Some humor also stems from the dialogue that eventually happens between our two primary players. The visuals are strong and the use of music is once again excellent, but it's the performances here that really make this one as memorable as it is, with Pryor every bit the equal of her two male co-stars.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The BFI's presentation of Ken Russell: The Great Composers was transferred in high definition from the archival elements. The fullframe AVC encoded 1080i picture shows good contrast and doesn't suffer from any serious print damage but specs and small nicks and scratches are present throughout. Contrast on the black and white image looks good and those who appreciate a good grainy picture will appreciate the fact that the picture hasn't been scrubbed down or bombarded with heavy noise reduction. Detail is fine considering the age and availability of elements, with close up shots showing the most but even medium and long distance shots showing off the dirt and decay evident throughout Dee's apartment. There aren't any issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement.

    The three films get English language LPCM Mono audio. The tracks sound fine for what they are, limited in range but clean enough to follow without any issues. Some minor hiss and pops are around but never to the point where it's much of an issue, really. Optional subtitles are provided in English.

    Each film gets a commentary track - Ken Russell and Michael Kennedy for Elgar (recorded for the previous release from 2002), a newly commentary from Kevin Flanagan for The Debussy Film and then another Ken Russell commentary, also recorded in 2002, for Song of Summer. Russell's tracks are always interesting and his input here is further proof of that fact. He goes on quite a bit about what it was like working for the BBC at the time, his thoughts on the actors he worked with here, what inspired him to tackle these subjects and more. The Flanagan commentary is more of a historical track with some critical analysis thrown in but it too is quite interesting and it does a nice job of providing some welcome background information on both the production and those who created it in the first place.

    The BFI have also assembled some interesting featurettes, beginning with ten minutes of Michael Bradsell Interview from 2015 wherein the film editor shares some insight and interesting anecdotes about the time he spent working with Ken Russell on quite a few of his theatrical pictures like Women In Love, The Music Lovers and of course, The Devils. The Land Of Hope And Glory is a quick three minute piece from 1931 that contains footage of Sir Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the opening of the (at the time) new HMV Studios (since renamed Abbey Road Studios). Also look out for the nine minute long Elgar And The Three Choirs Festival segment made by Harold Brooke between 1929 and 1932. This is quite literally some amateur footage of Sir Edward Elgar relaxing at home and then later performing the Three Choirs Festival and it's an interesting inclusion in the set given that he's the subject of the first film.

    Although this review is based off of test discs, retail product should also include a DVD version of the movies as well as a booklet of liner notes.

    The Final Word:

    Ken Russell: The Great Composers is a good one, offering up three of the enigmatic director's BBC works in excellent shape and with some pretty tantalizing extras as well. These obviously aren't as epic or insane as some Russell's theatrical pictures but they're fascinating examples of his talents none the less. Russell fans should consider this one fairly essential.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!






























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