You can’t always choose what you’re remembered for, and for Ken Russell, it’s likely that if people know his name as a director it’s for his 1975 film Tommy – which adapted The Who’s rock opera to the big screen – or 1980′s Altered States. The latter was about a man taking drugs, the former a film that was usually accompanied by it. Russell died on Sunday, November 27, after a series of strokes.
Like many second generation filmmakers, Russell got his start in television before getting his big break directing the third in the Michael Caine Harry Palmer series, The Billion Dollar Brain. Russell was forced into the job, but his next effort for the big screen was Women in Love. It was a huge hit, and mixed period detail with modern sexuality – the film is still infamous for a scene of its two male leads wrestling.
Russell found his niche, and most of his work would match sexuality to the profane. His masterpiece is still The Devils, the X-rated 1971 film starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, where it ties together repression and religion in a powerful redress of political persecution done through a witch hunt.The same year he made a G-rated musical with Twiggy (The Boy Friend)
The 1970′s lead to some of his most out-there work, perhaps encouraged by the drug generation, though he was often drawn to period bio-pics done with a Russell twist. Tommy is a tribute to excess, but has the all star cast and weirdness one would hope for from the movie. The same year Russell cast Roger Daltery as Franz Liszt in Lisztomania. The “disease,” perhaps best known to some through the Phoenix song of the same name, was that Liszt playing would induce a mania in female listeners back in the day.
Though Altered States was released in the 1980′s, it feels akin to the 70′s cinema era. It’s a big drug freak out of a movie. It also was a big studio release that in many ways ended Russell’s career. His next film was for the smaller company New World pictures (1984′s Crimes of Passion, which has its defenders), and though he made a number of films in the late 80′s, by the time of 1991′s Whore, he was seen as a relic. The last twenty years were then dedicated to shorts, documentaries, and omnibus pieces, most of which didn’t leave England or went straight to video.He became a fascinating and very cranky interview subject.
Russell’s legacy may be defined by availability. The Devils is renowned by many a film fan (Guillermo Del Toro – among many others – has called it one of the best films ever made), but has never been available in America on DVD, while only recently have a number of his 70′s films been put to the format – most available through studio’s archive collections. It seems likely the only film of his that will Blu-ray in the forseeable future is Tommy, which is readily available.
What Ken Russell have you seen?