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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Biopic as Opera (originally published 2/95)

Last week I took a look back at the long tradition of film biographies of famous composers, the most recent of which is "Immortal Beloved," featuring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. In recommending the films that I did, I was careful to point out that film biographies of composers, like all film biographies, should be regarded as sources of good entertainment rather than as sources of good history.

One fascinating case in point is the considerable body of work in this area by a filmmaker whom I did not mention last time. He's actually made more films about the lives of composers than any other filmmaker I'm aware of, but it certainly is not an interest in documenting the true and indisputable facts of the lives of these musicians that keeps him returning to this subject matter. He's got other fish to fry.

His name is Ken Russell. As the purveyor of one of the most interesting visual styles in the world of contemporary cinema, he makes films that rarely fail to evoke strong reactions -- both positive and negative. Whereas most films placidly unfold on the screen in front of you, a Russell film is more likely to grab you by the scruff of the neck and rough you up a bit. His imagery is big, broad, and passionate -- in a word, operatic.

That, I think, is the reason for his fascination with composers. His own relationship to the medium of film is more musical than dramatic. Indeed, he reminds me of no one so much as Ludwig van Beethoven, whose piano playing is said to have been so ferocious as to threaten to reduce the instrument to cordwood and splinters. That's more or less the way Russell makes a movie.

It's a style that is not for everyone, to be sure. In addition to sacrificing cinematic conventions on the altar of electrifying imagery, including some of the sacred cows of moviegoers for whom the play's the thing, Russell can be especially cavalier about historical accuracy. He'd much rather lay bare the soul of the music and see what it reveals about the soul of the composer.

Russell's early experiments with his unique style of composer biographies were produced for BBC television, including films about Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Delius. None of these early works is currently available on video [2010 NOTE: Happily, this deficit has since been ameliorated. Of the programs mentioned here, only the Strauss bio remains unavailable.], but his three feature films dealing with composers' lives have been released. If you're ready for a unique viewing experience, give them a try.

"The Music Lovers" (1971). By way of presenting the life of Tchaikovsky, Russell offers us a meditation on the idealism of 19th century Romanticism. That may sound dry and academic, but I assure you that Russell has no difficulty bringing such musings vividly to life. We watch in growing alarm as Tchaikovsky uses the theatrical fantasy world of his music to retreat from harsh reality into a particularly disturbing kind of madness.

"Mahler" (1974). Russell's screen biography of Gustav Mahler is, on the surface, relatively conventional. We see Mahler toward the end of his life on a train journey with his wife, Alma. As they reflect on their turbulent relationship, the film provides illustrative flashbacks. Underneath, however, as Russell himself has pointed out, he was up to something rather crafty, borrowing the structural principle of the rondo from music and applying it to film. A piece of music in rondo form alternates a central theme with any number of variations, but always returning to the original theme before proceeding to the next variation. In "Mahler," Russell says, the central theme is love while the variations are scenes representing aspects of death.

"Lisztomania" (1975). Last week I mentioned "Song Without End" (1960), in which Franz Liszt is portrayed as a matinee idol. In "Lisztomania," Russell takes that concept to its logical conclusion, recognizing that Liszt was in effect the first rock star. To nail down the point, he cast a sure-enough rock star, Roger Daltrey of The Who, to play the part of Liszt. The imagery here is about as wild as it gets, so you may not want to make this your first Russell movie.

Like the audience who staggered out of the first performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, those who see Ken Russell's work experience the vertiginous sensation of the aesthetic ground shifting under their feet. You may emerge elated or infuriated, possibly both, but you won't be unaffected.

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