Ken Russell's Elgar (and others)

Director Ken Russell has died at the age of 84. He was an original. And despite the excesses of his films (note: “excesses” is the word you will hear most often in describing Ken Russell; it’s like that guy in Annie Hall automatically uses the term “indulgent” for Fellini), I think his genuine love for music always came through.

To an extent, what Russell did in his classical music films was to reverse the old music-appreciation formula. The idea of a lot of films about classical music was to present a story with musical interludes – the story of a composer’s life would, hopefully, make us interested in his music. Russell almost made the composer’s life (what there was of it in the film) an accompaniment to the music.

You can see this in his first big success, the BBC documentary Elgar. This isn’t typical Russell, because his producers restrained him a bit (he was allowed to use actors, but not to have them speak). But it is more about Elgar’s music than his life story, and it emphasizes the emotional reactions that are provoked when music is juxtaposed with images – like having “Land of Hope and Glory,” the ultimate anthem of Edwardian confidence, played over footage of World War I, which made it all seem like a lie.


“Elgar” helped to redeem the reputation of a composer who was sometimes unfairly dismissed as a symbol of stuffy Edwardian bombast. And it made Russell one of the BBC’s most important filmmakers in a great era of TV making, up until his Richard Strauss film (which you can find on YouTube, along with the rest of the Elgar documentary) got banned by the Strauss estate and made him persona non grata at the BBC. But by then, he was already concentrating on controversial feature films more than controversial TV films, anyway.

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