The first review I ever wrote — God help me — was of a movie directed by Ken Russell, the high-trash visionary of over-the-top British psychodrama who died Sunday at 84. It was 1975, the fall of my senior year in high school, and my friends and I had gone to the opening night show of Tommy, the deluxe, star-packed big-screen version of the Who’s rock opera. (Elton John as the Pinball Wizard! Tina Turner as the Acid Queen! Ann-Margret writhing in beans and suds! Jack Nicholson leering!) I thought parts of the movie were amazing, but it had a certain jaw-dropping vulgar psychedelic shamelessness that, to a budding young brat eager to vent his teenage snark, inspired me not only to write about the film for my school paper but to basically ridicule it. I don’t have the review at hand, but I remember, in essence, that I hurled the following sorts of words at Russell’s Tommy: lurid, kitschy, bombastic, overripe, overwrought, overdone.
I was right, of course. And also completely wrong. Because what I should have realized — and what I came to know later on, as I began to enter the unique universe of Ken Russell — is that all those words, when applied to him, didn’t amount to criticism but to lavish praise. In his heyday, which was the 1970s, Ken Russell turned the lurid, the kitschy, the bombastic, and the overripe into a sublimely debased form of pop art. He was the clown prince of purple cinema. He wasn’t a “good filmmaker” in a conventional sense — though he did, early in his career, direct one proto-Masterpiece Theatre movie, the 1969 version of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, that became a celebrated film for actually succeeding in bottling some of that Lawrentian liquid nature on screen. (It also became famous for its male nude wrestling scene.) Women in Love was Russell’s one semi-fling with good taste, but it didn’t stick. From that point on, what defined his movies wasn’t respectability but its opposite, fused with a quality he had in his eccentric British bones: a passion so borderline unhinged yet possessed that it was bedazzling.
He was hugely influential. There’d be no Baz Luhrmann without him — but more tellingly, music video would never have looked and sounded the way it did without Ken Russell’s visually promiscuous, image-mad, rule-breaking audacity. A number of his best films were essentially biographical high-art mock musicals, and though they often seemed to be making a hash of basic storytelling verities, his response to music was so pure that the films were like psychotic opera on drugs. Once you got onto their wavelength, they were mesmerizing. Perhaps because Russell was born in 1927, long before the pop era, Tommy was the only rock & roll film that he ever made. His focus was classical music. Yet his inspiration, in the lavishly decadent biopics on which he made his reputation, was to turn classical music into pop, to treat its most fabled composers, like Tchaikovsky or Mahler or Franz Liszt, as tormented superstars. A film like The Music Lovers (1970), in which Richard Chamberlain played Tchaikovsky as a ravaged soul whose conflicted relationship with his homosexuality was the sweet hellfire out of which he pulled his yearning melodies, didn’t pretend to be true to many of the nuts-and-bolts facts of the composer’s life. It was true, rather, to a fever-dream mythology of stoned therapy, as if Russell were making a biography not of Tchaikovsky’s life but of his inner life.
As much as John Waters or David Lynch, Russell anticipated the era of extreme, taboo-defiling shock culture we’re living in now. When I was in college, in the late ’70s, a film that was regularly presented on campus as a landmark of transgression was Russell’s The Devils (pictured right), starring Vanessa Redgrave as a sexually obsessed, humpbacked nun in 17th century France and Oliver Reed as the happily dissolute priest who becomes the object of her ardor. The movie, made in 1971, often seems to be taking place in an insane asylum — it’s creepy and naked, driven by depraved currents of erotic anguish. Russell staged it as the ultimate lapsed Catholic fantasy, and if it remains his most scandalous film, in many ways, it is also his best, the purest eruption of his twisted id.
As the ’70s wound down, so did Russell’s career. He made more biopics, like the misbegotten Valentino (1977), but he really had only one more genuine Moment: his match-made-in-hell collaboration with screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, which produced the oddball-acidhead extravaganza that was Altered States (1980), a movie that I remember mainly for William Hurt spewing out his lines faster, or so it seemed at the time, than any previous actor in screen history. In a sense, Altered States played to Russell’s sweet spot — it turned druggy mental cartwheeling into eye candy — but in another way, it was a director hanging on for one last ramshackle ride. His films over the next decade, from Crimes of Passion (1984) to Gothic (1986) to The Lair of the White Worm (1988) to The Rainbow (1989), were like the thinnest of gloss on his earlier triumphs. By the time he made Whore (1991), the one film of his that I ever reviewed for EW (“not a moment in it feels spontaneous or true. Russell turns up his nose at everything — at prostitution, at sex, even at his ‘heroine,’ who is ridiculed, repeatedly, for her gum-snapping stupidity”), he was like a spent glam rocker who’d run out of hair gel. He slid off the radar, to the point this his most noteworthy achievement in the last 20 years may have been his brief, but eminently YouTube-able, appearance as his cranky-eccentric white-haired elfin-grandpa self on Britain’s Celebrity Big Brother.
And yet, back in the ’70s, in his baroque heyday, Ken Russell seemed nothing less than a slightly batty but full-on cousin to the New Hollywood. On hearing of his death, I immediately flashed back to images from his films that have stayed with me for decades: the house on a lake bursting into flames, in perfect time to a symphonic downbeat, at the start of Mahler; Oliver Reed being melted by flames at the end of The Devils; and the Marilyn Monroe church in Tommy — a Warhol-poetic image of celebrity as the new religion. As a filmmaker, Ken Russell wasn’t a “thinker,” but he channeled so much of our world into his luscious, crazy visions that, if only for a couple of hours, he altered the state of what you saw.
So what’s your favorite Ken Russell film?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman