Ken Russell: The Great Composers [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (23rd March 2016).
The Film

“Ken Russell The Great Composers”

Between 1959 and 1970, Ken Russell worked as a director of television content at the BBC, where his creativity as an artist of visuals first truly shined. The BBC television series “Monitor” (1958-1965) and later “Omnibus” (1967-2003) were documentary shows that focused on the arts - music, painting, photography, film, and so forth. Certain episodes had interviews with contemporary artists. Others were talking heads describing a historical figure with a slideshow presentation. Russell directed nearly 30 episodes for both series combined, and the BFI has now released two separate collections of three works each: “Ken Russell: The Great Composers” and “Ken Russell: The Great Passions” with all six telefilms making their high definition debuts.

“Ken Russell: The Great Composers” includes the following three telefilms:

“Elgar” (broadcast on “Monitor”, 11th November 1962)
“The Debussy Film” (broadcast on “Monitor”, 18th May 1965)
“Song of Summer: Frederick Delius” (broadcast on “Omnibus”, 15th September 1968)

“Elgar” was an episode dedicated to the life of English composer Edward Elgar, whose “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” compositions are some of the most recognizable classical works ever produced, being an unofficial anthem for England and being the unofficial music for graduation ceremonies in the United States. But Elgar’s life was not all “Pomp” but more “Circumstance” - from being disowned by his family due to his marriage to an older non-Catholic woman and years of unrecognized work composing, for examples. Russell decided to construct “Elgar” in a non-traditional form for “Monitor”. Instead of the usual talking heads of interviewees, voice over narration of photographs or of film footage, he decided on an idea of recreations - actors would portray the real life counterparts and shot on location. The BBC questioned this style which had never been done before for the show. Was it ethical to show actors portraying real people and still call it a documentary? (Even the 1988 film by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris “The Thin Blue Line” made critics argue the same point.) To hold onto some form of traditional television documentary ethics, the actors were not to speak and the telefilm would be narrated, with commentary written and spoken by Huw Wheldon, program director of “Monitor” and later the managing director of the BBC. Though not everything was done in reenactments, as still photos were used, cleverly in photo albums being turned by the characters in certain scenes, and stock footage of the turn of the century and World War I were used at certain points. Russell directs some very impressive shots, such as the horse ride on the mountainside, the iconic image of the three crosses in the distance, and many geometrically composed shots inside and outside locations. “Elgar” was a groundbreaker artistically and very well received by critics and the viewers, leading “Monitor” to start using reenactments in their future episodes, and eventually even having the actors speak lines rather than relying entirely on narration. With only Wheldon’s narration and the music to guide the viewers aurally, it is a little difficult to get an emotional response from the film compared to biopics, but it should be noted this was an educational arts program, and was not intended for dramatic focus such as soap operas. Even though the episode was dedicated to the representation of the art and life of Edward Elgar, in many ways the artistic creativity of director Ken Russell was more in the foreground, and was only the start of what was to come.

For “The Debussy Film” Russell and writer Melvyn Bragg decided to break down even more traditional walls of the “Monitor” show. In one of the most unusual episodes of “Monitor”, it is not a conventional documentary or biopic of French composer Claude Debussy, but is a film director trying to film a biopic of Claude Debussy. Closer to the 1963 film “8 ½” by director Federico Fellini in which a director is trying to complete a new film while going through crisis after crisis both professionally and personally, “The Debussy Film” is anything but convention. The director (played by Vladek Sheybal) is trying to get his vision of Debussy’s life onto film, explaining to the actor playing Debussy (played by Oliver Reed) the motivations in scenes, giving information about the real Debussy and details of his life and work. The audience sees behind the scenes footage, the turmoil behind the scenes, the thin line between art and life, as aspects of Debussy’s life start to drift over into the lives of the performers. And to push the television boundaries further, it pushed sexual situations quite shocking to see on 1960’s television with topless swimming, stripping, and implied orgies, though none particularly explicit. Rather than a full look into the genius of Debussy’s work, it is closer to films such as Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night” or Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard”, in which the process is the focal point rather than the subject that was supposedly being produced. For viewers it was confusing, unconventional, and possibly pretentious. The work done by the filmmakers completely overshadowed the subject of the film, and surprisingly Debussy’s most famous compositions “Clair de lune” does not play during the film, although “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks plays during a party scene and “Ride of the Valkeries” by Richard Wagner plays during a editing tour de force years before the iconic use of the composition in “Apocalypse Now” (1979). “The Debussy Film” may have left some viewers cold and confused, but artistically it was an amazing work of experimentation.

With 1968’s “Song of Summer”, Russell directs his most conventional film in the set and one of the most straightforward films in his career. Based on musician and composer Eric Fenby’s memoirs “Delius as I Knew Him”, Russell adapted the work with full cooperation of Fenby who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Russell and was a consultant on the production. 22 year old Fenby (played by Christopher Gable) was a silent film organist in England who became extremely interested in the compositions of composer Frederick Delius (played by Max Adrian). Fenby learns that the 66 year old Delius is living in France, blind and almost entirely paralyzed from the neck below due to complications of syphilis, but still looking to compose the music in his mind. Leaving behind his life in England, Fenby decides to move to France to become as an amanuensis - Delius’ eyes and hands to help complete the unfinished compositions. But Delius proves not to be the easiest person to work with, as his physical condition and his stubbornness make Fenby reconsider both his decision to move and his musical talent many times over. “Song of Summer” is unlike the documentary telefilms of Russell’s previous work by not including a single frame of vintage photographs or any vintage film footage - with the exception of the silent film being screened at the start of the story. Russell’s work as a director of visuals and a director of actors’ performances were truly exceptional here. Visually the closeups of faces, the use of tracking shots, the surroundings of nature, are amazingly well constructed. As for the performances, not only is Russell to be praised but the real Eric Fenby, who coached the actors in how to behave and how to react in various situations. Apparently, some of the scenes rehearsed with the actors were so close to Fenby’s memory that he started to well up with deep emotions from 40 years ago returning suddenly. With “Song of Summer”, it became one of the best received telefilms in Russell’s career. Not only from critics and viewers, but even Russell himself called it the best work he had ever made and Fenby was extremely happy with the final result of his memoirs coming to life. After six years working with Delius until his death in 1934, Fenby was able to compose on his own, including for film with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film “Jamaica Inn”. Unfortunately due to World War II, his own music career had to be put on hold yet again, and sadly that was his only film composition. Post war, he became a college music professor at both the North Riding Trading College and later the Royal Academy of Music in London. He died in 1997 at the age of 90.

It should be noted that the original broadcast version of “Song of Summer” had clips of the Laurel and Hardy film “Way Out West”, but due to copyright reasons they have been replaced with scenes from the film “What Next?” directed by and starring Walter Forde. It also corrects an anachronism, as the scene supposedly took place in 1928, the year “What Next?” was released, while “Way Out West” was from 1937, a full 8 years after Laurel and Hardy started making their first talkie films.

The three telefilms included in this set have the common theme of films about music composers but stylistically the three films couldn’t be more different. The films certainly show a progression of boundary pushing and artistic merit of Ken Russell as a filmmaker to the fullest. Hopefully in the future Russell’s other “Monitor” and “Omnibus” episodes focusing on music composers will be released by the BFI such as his episodes on Bela Bartok and Richard Strauss (though the Strauss episode has been blocked by the estate and won’t be released until 2019 with the Strauss music rights lapse). It’s always interesting to see the evolution of a filmmaker, and the three presented here show great examples of successful experimentation by a visionary artist about visionary artists.

Note this is a region B locked Blu-ray disc which can only be played back on region B and region free players

Video

The BFI presents the three telefilms in 1080i 50hz, in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Rather than a 1080p 24fps transfer, the restored films are presented in 25fps, the UK television standard format as they were originally broadcast.

All three telefilms were shot on 35mm film, and were transferred in High Definition from the original 35mm negatives. The black and white transfers look exquisite with a balanced greyscale and there are no instances of dust, dirt, debris, or splices in the new transfers. The only examples of the picture looking weaker are the stock footage used in “Elgar” and the silent film clips used in “Song of Summer”, which should be expected. Everything shot by Russell and the BBC staff looks incredible and the restored transfers are a sight to behold - miles ahead of the original television broadcasts.

“Elgar” and “The Debussy Film” are presented uncut while “Song of Summer” has a small change due to copyright as noted in the review. The runtimes are as follows:
* "Elgar" (54:50)
* "The Debussy Film" (82:14)
* "Song of Summer" (73:35)

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono

Each film includes the original mono track in lossless LPCM. Although one expects audio from a telefilm from the 1960’s to sound muffled and tinny, the restored mono tracks presented here are again amazing. First of all, the music tracks sound beautiful, especially in the “Song of Summer: Frederick Delius" episode with Delias’ compositions sounding very full and deep even if coming from a monaural source. Dialogue is always very clear, with Huw Wheldon’s narration in “Elgar” sounding great as it was recorded in sound booth settings, and the on set dialogue of the other two films having no problems in the soundtracks -no hisses, pops, or dropouts to speak of. The restored picture was exceptional and the restored audio compliments it.

There are optional English HoH subtitles available for all three telefilms in a white font.

Extras

The telefilms and the extras are all presented on a single Blu-ray disc with additional two DVD discs repeating the same content. The extras are as follows:

Audio commentary for "Elgar" by Ken Russell and Michael Kennedy
This commentary recorded in 2002 for the BFI DVD, features director Ken Russell moderated by Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy. The two discuss about the production of the film, the reaction to the film, and Kennedy also points out some of the liberties that Russell took with the accuracy such as Elgar owning a different breed of dog and the wife being left handed. Russell also talks briefly about his 2002 work “Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle”. which was yet to be completed at the time of the commentary.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Audio commentary for "The Debussy Film" by Kevin Flanagan
This new commentary recorded specifically for the new Blu-ray features Kevin Flanagan, writer of “Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist”. Flanagan points out the symbolisms, sexuality, the various film references as well as a few bios on the actors and the crew. It’s an interesting commentary though not very well scripted - as he stumbles through some “uhs” and “ums”, and also it is not very well recorded. With a slight echo and limited fidelity it sounds more like Flanagan was in a toilet stall rather than a recording booth for the commentary. Also, it would have been better if he could make up his mind whether Debussy’s name was pronounced “De-boo-sy” or “De-byu-sy”.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Audio commentary for "Song of Summer: Frederick Delius" by Ken Russell
This 2002 commentary features Russell flying solo, and he quite the talker. Russell talks about the process of making the film, the locations of France being shot in England on a small budget, and the recollections of meeting the real life Fenby. This is probably the best commentary in the set, though there are a few dead moments here and there.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Michael Bradsell Interview (10:04)
Editor Michael Bradsell reminisces about the late Ken Russell, his method of filmmaking and talks about each film in this set. Strangely, he was not editor on any of the three films presented in this set, though he did edit Russell’s teleplays of “Isadora Duncan” and “Dante’s Inferno” (which are both included on “The Great Passions” Blu-ray set from the BFI) in addition to Russell’s controversial 1971 film “The Devils”.
in 1.78:1, in 1080i 50hz, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English HoH subtitles

"Land of Hope and Glory" 1931 footage of Sir Edward Elgar conducting the LSO at the opening of the new HMV Studios (3:20)
This 1931 sound footage features Elgar conducting as well as speaking, with an introduction by Michael Kennedy. This was originally included on the “Elgar” 2002 DVD from the BFI. The picture has not been restored and comes from a standard definition source. The soundtrack also suffers from a crackling distortion.
in 1.33:1, in upscaled 1080i 50hz, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English HoH subtitles

"Elgar and the Three Choirs Festival" (Harold Brooke, 1929-1932) (9:19)
Again introduced by Michael Kennedy, he also narrates over the silent film footage of Elgar over the period of three years shot by Harold Brooke. Again, the picture has not been restored and comes from a standard definition source.
in 1.33:1, in upscaled 1080i 50hz, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English HoH subtitles

DISC TWO & THREE (DVD Copy)
The DVDs repeat all the content listed above, in the PAL format. The DVDs are coded region 2.

Booklet
Enclosed in the case is a 28 page booklet which includes essays, film credits, extras information, and notes about the presentations. The first essay “The Versatile Visionary: Ken Russell in the Sixties” by Kevin Flanagan, contributor to the commentary track on “The Debussy Film” is an overall look at Russell’s BBC work in the sixties, focusing on the music themed films. The other essays are film specific: “Elgar” written by John Hill, “The Debussy Film” written by Kevin Flanagan, and “Song of Summer: Disturbingly Lifelike” by John C. Tibbetts. Also included is a short biography on the late Russell written by biographer Paul Sutton.

The commentaries and written materials contain quite a lot of information, but it’s a shame that none of the actors or crew members could have been interviewed about the films. Regardless, it’s great to have two commentaries featuring Russell in the set.

Overall

The “Ken Russell: The Great Composers” set from the BFI showcases some of director Ken Russell at his best - creating original, experimental, and beautiful works of art even on a small television scale. The BFI’s transfers of the films are of excellent quality in audio and video, and supplements are as always very informative. Highly recommended, though more for Russell fans rather than music composer fans.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.