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Ken Russell -Great Composers Elgar: Portrait of the Composer (1962) [56:00] The Debussy Film: Impressions of the French composer (1965) [82:00] Song of Summer (1968) [73:00]
Elgar conducts his Land of Hope and Glory on the occasion of the opening of the new HMV studios at London’s Abbey Road
Elgar at the Three Choirs Festival
Michael Bradsell reminisces about working with Ken Russell and talks about these three films
Transferred to high definition from 35mm negatives with special emphasis on the early twentieth century archive material used in the Elgar film.
Black and white
English language with optional subtitles BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE BFI81244 Blu-ray/DVD [211:00 plus bonuses]
The first thing to note is the extraordinarily fine re-mastering of these three memorable composer films. The results are of high quality and high definition in each case. Each image is remarkably clean and clear - an appreciable advance on the standard of the earlier BFI DVD releases of the Elgar and Delius films.
I have often wondered why the controversial Debussy film was not seen again after its initial broadcast – because Debussy’s estate objected, presumably, to its content and avant-garde treatment. According to the British Film Institute, the estate ‘initially prevented repeated screenings though the composer’s copyright has since expired’. I was surprised to discover that this ‘experimental’ Debussy film was made between the Elgar and Delius productions. At a 21st century distance, I had assumed the Debussy project came last.
The Elgar film came at an opportune time. Up until the 1960s he was very much under-appreciated and generally misunderstood because of the perceived jingoism of some of his music especially the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. How well I remember attending a performance of The Kingdom at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the year of the centenary of his birth, 1957, when, disconcertingly, it seemed that there were more people in the choir and orchestra than in the audience. Ken Russell’s film, in showing the more sensitive, introspective side of Elgar, kindled a dramatic and telling resurgence of interest in the man and his music. Some of the images from the film remain indelibly in the mind such as the composer as a boy on a white pony, as a young man on a bicycle and as an old man in a car, all riding over the Malvern Hills. Other images may be fixed too. These include the controversial three crosses planted atop the Malvern Hills over music from The Dream of Gerontius. The film had its weaknesses. For me the Great War sequences were overstated.
There is an audio commentary available on the Elgar film by Ken Russell and Michael Kennedy who introduces some of the Elgar bonus material.
The Debussy film bombards the viewer with the complexity of Ken Russell’s conceit of a film within a film, about a modern-day film crew making a film about the life and loves, and music of Debussy while the crew’s own predilections parallel those of the composer. There is another layer of complexity in that the Polish actor, Vladek Sheybal who plays the modern day film director also plays the French pornographer-poet and writer Pierre Louÿs, who had a Svengali-like influence on Debussy. Sheybal’s diction is not always clear either. In all, Ken Russell’s notion is very clever, probably too clever. It might well take several viewings and Kevin M Flanagan’s commentary fully to appreciate this production. Russell’s camera in the best sequences shows us how all the arts inter-relate and how Debussy struggled to make his new music reflect colour and the senses. Russell uses images, often to great effect, of Pre-Raphaelite art, statues, statuettes, art deco furniture, gardens, palatial interiors, seascapes and woodlands. Some sequences work well such as those depicting Debussy’s earlier life and romance with his first great love Gaby: the episode to Jardins sous la pluie where they cavort, playfully, carefree and rain-soaked; and a little later languidly, romantically through sun-dappled wooded glades to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Then we encounter the antagonism between Debussy and Maurice Maeterlinck, a treatment that is reminiscent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Not all the settings of Debussy’s music are appropriate in my opinion. Russell has a religious procession for the Fêtes movement of the Nocturnes. This music is surely more secular than liturgical?
I could add further comments on this extraordinary film. However. it is interesting to note that Melvyn Bragg (now Lord Bragg) was a major contributor to the Debussy film in respect of the scenario and dialogue aspects. One wonders what he might think of this film today and how he might approach the subject now?
Of the three films, Song of Summer about the working partnership between Delius and his young Yorkshireman amanuensis, Eric Fenby, is generally considered to be Ken Russell’s masterpiece. Here Russell is more restrained, reining in his excesses and returning more to the style of his earlier Elgar film. The scenes in which the mismatched pair — the impatient atheist, Delius and the naïve, religious and over-sensitive Fenby — slowly, painfully forge a working relationship, are poignant and very realistic. Delius is there, blind and paralysed, eager to dictate the music locked in his head while Fenby tries hard to realise what the composer means and worries about keeping up with his dictation. Eric Fenby himself visited the Ken Russell film-set when they were filming the scene in which Fenby first meets Delius and was overcome watching the action noting that the reality was just like what was being filmed. Highlights of the film include the visit to Grez by the very exuberant Percy Grainger throwing tennis balls over the roof of the house then rushing through it to catch them on the other side. Most strikingly, there's the image of Delius carried on a chair slung between two poles up a mountain to see a last sunset before his sight completely left him only to discover the view is obscured by clouds. They disappear at the right moment for Delius to behold a glorious sunset. Delius’s masterpiece A Song of the High Hills, immortalises such a vision and raises it to the realms of the mystical.
Ken Russell offers an audio commentary on his Delius film.
The Elgar bonus features have been seen with the earlier BFI DVD but the interview with Michael Bradsell, the film editor, on working with Ken Russell appears to be new.
The release come with a 30-page illustrated booklet with new essays by Kevin M. Flanagan, John Hill. John C. Tibbetts, Paul Sutton and Michael Brooke. Film credits are given in full.
I watched all three films and bonuses in these new incarnations on a curved screen full HD TV. Ian Lace