Composers on Camera: Ken Russell’s “Elgar” and “The Debussy Film”

tumblr_lmlcl3mM941qlois2o1_1280Hello, and welcome to my notebook! This review and those that follow are essentially a detailed set of notes to myself for the upcoming 5-part Radio New Zealand series: Composers on Camera. For 250 delicious minutes, I plan to discuss and dissect the narratives of films about composers – from golden-age cinema like “Song of Love” about Schumann and Brahms, to Ken Russell’s fever-dreaming portrayals of composers like Tchaikovsky in “The Music Lovers.” But of especial interest will be the new generation of high-production, elemental-narrative films that started with “Amadeus.” Love it or hate it, it’s become iconic for our modern culture, and influenced the direction of how most people understand classical composers.

The point of my radio series won’t be to dictate which film is good or bad, or to make any recommendations about what to watch. Rather, I’m interested in the way people use basic stories to help them relate to the life story of a historical figure – and what that tells us about ourselves. For instance, Amadeus is basically just a retelling of the Cain and Abel story. What does it say about us that we’re more fascinated by Salieri’s (Cain’s) long trek into the darkness of envy and hate, than we are by Mozart’s (Abel’s) burnt offering of music on the altar?

Or, for another example, the film “Copying Beethoven” is an example of “Mary-Sue” fan fiction. A fan writes themselves into their favorite story, and comes to the rescue when a favorite character is in need. Mary-Sue is there to sharpen Gimli’s axe, or warn Harry Potter of a plot by Draco Malfoy, or in the case of this movie, to help Beethoven finish and perform the Ninth Symphony. Why do we need to play sidekick, instead of being the lead character? And what does it say about how we appreciate Beethoven that his story needs a girl Friday to sort things out for him?

But for the purposes of these notes, I will be making judgements, writing critically, and rating films for historical accuracy, musical content, and other important factors. Long ago, I was asked by a student about which films to watch about the great composers. My instinct at the time was that the topic needed a whole book of reviews to help lovers of music make an informed decision, and to help understand which movies were really informative, and which were just any old story glued clumsily to a misperception of a composer’s history. And while I don’t have time to write that book, here’s the nearest thing to it – a series of reviews, once again, a peek into my notebook as I work out what I’m going to write into my upcoming series.

I’m starting with Ken Russell – not a bad entry point, as his work is heavily focused on artists and composers. Russell is obsessed with the question what makes a composer tick, and often the answer is made out to be something perverse or neurotic. The result is a series of composer films that are really more about Russell than his subjects. The two films in this review are from very early days at the BBC, when Russell was working for a programme slot dedicated to features about the appreciation of great art – one aspect of which was biography.

His first film about a composer was Elgar – a worthy subject if there ever was one. The action starts with the composer as a boy riding a pony frantically across the fields, soon joined by the dry-as-a-bone voice of the announcer, crisply laying out the facts of Elgar’s life. In fact, one could actually close one’s eyes and simply listen to the soundtrack of the film. It’s a documentary that essentially boils down to a BBC radio program (very much like those I do for Radio New Zealand’s Concert-FM) with a presenter discussing a composer, interspersed with musical selections. All that’s added are reenactments, photo stills, and newsreel footage.

This is exactly the type of film I will not be reviewing in future notes, nor bothering to mention in my Composers on Camera Series. My focus is not on the facts, but the stories that directors choose to tell, and why we accept or reject them. Ken Russell’s Elgar is too correct in that it actually tells Elgar’s story – though Russell chooses to focus on the “victim-of-his-own-success” story line in the composer’s later years. But that’s a thread true of many composers, not just a clichéd ironic twist. What I actually found most interesting was the reminder that Elgar’s period of greatest success and achievement was a mere decade and a half, from the early 1890’s to the mid-1900’s. Before this, he was a struggling nobody; after this, he struggled to stay relevant and avoid the perils of becoming a dusty icon.

If Ken Russell had continued to make films like “Elgar,” then we might never have heard his name as a Bohemian household word. However, he was too ambitious to continue setting radio scripts to visual aids for long. His next noteworthy composer film was the antithesis of the staid, starchy BBC presentation style, called “The Debussy Film.” It’s a film-within-a-film, answering the question of “how do we make a feature film about a Parisian composer when we can’t afford to shoot a full-length picture, or travel to Paris?” The answer is to make a film about a director making a film – that way scenes can be left out, arbitrarily ordered, or explained for context as the filmmaker attempts to school his minions. These include an unlikely Oliver Reed as Debussy, and party-girl Annette Robertson as Gaby of the green eyes. We follow these actors playing actors playing roles through a series of scenes that interpret the life of Debussy, intended as sketches that leave the viewer with an impression rather than information.

One might mistake this as a paean to Debussy’s dictum that all music and art henceforth be composed of sketches, and a tip of the hat to his supposed “impressionist” origins (in truth, Debussy rejected that label). But the real influence here is Fellini, in the feel of the cutting and cinematography, the touch of alienating hyper-realism, and a layer of self-conscious absurdism. If you like weird camera angles, jarring cuts, and cats that go “boing” in the air, this is the picture for you. It’s a film of mock sword-fights with broom handles, bumper-car duels to Das Rheingold, and lots of uncoordinated people attempting to dance convincingly to pop music.

Where things come apart is the lack of any real story or binding narrative, either culled from Debussy’s life, or in the movie-within-a-movie. Russell’s director character, played by the Peter Lorre-esque Vladek Sheybal, seems riveted on how Debussy used the women in his life, sponging off them in order to compose without having to work a real day job. There’s a grain of truth to that, as Debussy did have many uncertain financial times during his marriages – but it’s a huge stretch to cast him in the role of a complete and utter cad who sucked women dry, then heartlessly threw their suicidal husks away. Mirrored to this is Oliver Reed’s slow procession as faithless lover through the cast’s leading ladies, changing over from one to the other as his film role dictates.

So when you’re finished watching this movie, what do you know about Debussy’s life, really? Perhaps a few paragraphs of basic biographical facts, with a few time-worn innuendoes thrown in. Do you understand what motivated him to compose his great works? Or how he fit artistically in with his time, and helped to change the nature of how we understand music? Or even feel like you got to know Debussy a little better, and shared an hour or two with his character? Probably not. And my digging for some sort of iconic narrative is similarly bereft. But don’t despair. I’ll be watching dozens of movies over the next few weeks, and a lot of them are very good indeed – I hope to introduce you to some, and get you to think about whether I’ve got it right from your perspective as well.




Historical accuracy: ****

Perfect, as far as the 1960’s knowledge of that era is concerned.

Educational value about its subject: ****

Excellent. I even found out a few facts I hadn’t known.

Narrative: **

None but Elgar’s, which is unique. That makes it a doco, not really a story.

Direction: ***

Excellent for its kind, but dry by modern standards.

Acting: ***

Good reenactments, though no real dialogue

Music: ****

Excellent music throughout.

Final tally: *** + 1/2 stars – excellent film in most respects



The Debussy Film 

Historical accuracy: ***

Accurate, but somewhat limited in scope by the director’s view of who Debussy was.

Educational value about its subject: **

The direction really gets in the way of it being informational, but it sort of works.

Narrative: *

Hardly any, unless you think using other people is a key factor of artistic relationships.

Direction: ****

Very very very well done – a superb example of this kind of filmmaking.

Acting: ****

Once again, superb. Oliver Reed and Vladek Sheybal are great, but the women of the cast are even better – they really make you believe what they’re going through trying to make Sheybal’s ridiculous picture.

Music: ****

No compromises here – very good use of Debussy’s music as both setting and subject.

Final tally: *** stars – very watchable, worth a try if you know what you’re in for


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