I saw Ken Russell at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival when he rolled up to introduce a rare screening of his excellent 1972 film SAVAGE MESSIAH. He was clearly old and in poor health, but resolutely twinkly-eyed and mischievous as he said that he couldn’t really remember anything about the film so was looking forward to seeing it. He then sat in the front row, rapt as he watched his near forty year old creation. I remember seeing the light from the screen fall on his face as he gazed upwards. Later that evening, he apparently went to a film festival do in his honour. He didn’t like any of the buffet food on offer and instead asked for Christmas pudding (it was June). Some Christmas pudding was duly found.
I have to say, I don’t remember too much about SAVAGE MESSIAH myself other than I really liked it, very much Ken Russell at full pelt, and there was a scene with a young Helen Mirren totally starkers except for a pair of high heels.
It may seem odd that I’m going to advocate a film I haven’t seen. However, horror milestone THE DEVILS (1971), is being released in its original X-rated cut next March, after decades of striving to get back in public eye. A pretty good tribute to the life and work of Ken Russell would be to find and pick it up off the shelves. I know I will be.
For me Ken Russell means TOMMY. I have loved this rock opera since I was nine – old enough to laugh at the louche hysteria, young enough to feel intimidated by Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie. To an adult newcomer it’s mawkish and ridiculous, but when fate handed the reins to Ken Russell and not George Lucas, something wildly special happened – watch this clip and get hit with The Who, boozy cynic Olly Reed, charming predator Jack Nicholson and glitter vixen Ann Margret.
My abiding memory of a Russell film was his early documentary for the BBC, DELIUS – SONG OF SUMMER made in 1968. I remember seeing it for the first time then and thinking that totally new ground had been broken in the genre of music biography. I will never forget the mesmerising performance Russell got from Max Adrian – as the blind dying composer enjoying one last visit from his creative muse. It was a masterpiece of music storytelling, a tribute also to the great Shakespearian actor Adrian and a very heartfelt, personal tribute to a wonderful, by then neglected composer from a rising star in movie making.