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A Ken Russell Retrospective: The Musical Monitor Episodes

Portrait of a Goon (1959)

This week my Ken Russell series continues with a look at some of his short, music-themed episodes for the BBC’s Monitor series, which he contributed to from 1959 to 1965, during the early years of his career as a director. I’ve already looked at some of his longer works for the series, which essentially function as feature films — Elgar (1962), Béla Bartók (1964), and The Debussy Film (1965) — all experimental (and ultimately influential) biographies of composers that remain compelling examples of a young director developing his personal style and would look forward to some of his later, more accomplished biographies of musicians (specifically classical composers) like The Music Lovers (1970), Mahler (1974), and Lisztomania (1975). But some of these shorter episodes are equally fascinating and it’s a shame that they remain so unfairly neglected, with some of them a bit difficult to get ahold of. In general, they explore some of Russell’s ongoing themes: eccentric personalities, isolated artists, man in nature, and the relationship between art and history.

In particular, I’m going to focus on five episodes of varying lengths that Russell made between 1959 and 1961 that all focus on music or musicians: Guitar Craze (1959), a look at the rise of guitar music in England in the late ‘50s; Portrait of a Goon (1959), about The Goon Show comedian Spike Milligan, which features music and Milligan singing quite heavily; Gordon Jacob (1959), a touching biography of the English composer that is quite similar in tone to Elgar; Prokofiev: Portrait of a Soviet Composer (1961), an in-depth exploration of the great Russian composer and conductor; and Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (1961), where the wonderful German singer and actress performs some of her husband’s more beloved compositions. These episodes are also proof of Russell’s seemingly bottomless curiosity about art and music, a passion that would continue throughout his long, prolific career in various forms.

Guitar Craze is a 17-minute episode from June of 1959 that really just serves as a quick glimpse at the popularity of guitar playing and the rise of rock music in England throughout the ‘50s. This segment primarily contrasts guitar playing with urban footage and its most popular shots follow the sounds of music through the city as then 19-year old Davy Graham plays while sitting on some rubble. Locals of all ages gather around — including two old ladies poking their heads out of a window — to listen to “Cry Me a River.” Coincidentally, Graham would go on to become a widely influential acoustic guitar player, particularly among folk musicians, (and even had a cameo in Joseph Losey’s The Servant a few years later) and it’s interesting that Russell chose to focus on him; which is perhaps a testament to the fact that Russell had his finger on the pulse of cultural achievement in general, though he seems to always have a special place in his heart for musicians in particular.

Portrait of a Goon (1959)

The 13-minute short Portrait of a Goon, also from 1959, is another quick glimpse at an influential — if far more eccentric — figure: Spike Milligan. The versatile British comic, writer, and musician was primarily known for The Goon Show at that point (1951-1960), a radio show he created and wrote alongside collaborators like Peter Sellers. The warm, funny, and undeniably quirky Milligan is on screen for far too short a time and it’s a shame that Russell wasn’t able to delve more deeply into his rich, complicated personal history (and fascinating career); Russell primarily depicts him telling stories and answering interview questions. He ponders the point of comedy and discusses the fact that his own personal approach to comedy is “based on tragedy.” In Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist, Paul Sutton wrote, “The film, mostly shot on the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, was made to celebrate the success of Milligan’s book of nonsense verse–Silly Verse for Kids” (11). Also included are short, surreal comedic bits, where Milligan is ejected from a building and another where he endlessly climbs a staircase, combined with audio clips from The Goon Show.

If you’re wondering why I included Portrait of a Goon in with some of Russell’s musical episodes, it’s because — at least in my mind — the centerpiece of the short is a sequence where Milligan sings overtop of footage of historical events, including the detonation of the hydrogen bomb. It’s a wonderful bit that, yet again, I wish we could see more of. Apparently Russell and Milligan got on quite well and made a number of attempts to work together that never quite got off the ground. Sutton wrote, “For the next decade and more, Milligan repeatedly asked to be case in Russell’s films. Russell wrote and filmed a scene for The Devils in which Milligan, as a humble village priest, visits Grandier (Oliver Reed) on the day of Grandier’s arrest and torture, but the scene was cut from the final print” (11).

Gordon Jacob, from the same year, is a far more traditional version of one of Russell’s composer biographies and, if anything, resembles a less experimental version of Elgar. Though probably lesser known than any of Russell’s other biographical subjects, he was an English musician, WWI veteran, mainstay at the Royal College of Music, and composed for quite a wide range of recipients, notably popular mediums like radio and cinema, as well as the ballet (which is perhaps what drew Russell to him). This 17-minute short primarily focuses on Jacob’s life at home, his working method, and — like Elgar and Bartok — on his relationship to nature. The film provides an actual interview with Jacob about his background, family life, and daily routine and I have to say that he seems like the sweetest man. One of Russell’s chief strengths as a cinematic biographer is that his fascination with his subjects comes across so clearly and Jacob is no exception, though he’s not quite the eccentric, even troubled kind of figure that Russell primarily explored over the years; he’s actually quite conservative compared to all Russell’s other subjects.

Gordon Jacob (1959)

In typical Russell fashion, much of the emphasis is on the English countryside and bringing the composer’s music to life by juxtaposing it with scenes of nature. Paul Sutton wrote that Russell “did what he liked to do most of all — make a film in his favorite part of his favorite country — the New Forest of Hampshire. The forest, which begins about six miles west of his birthplace in Southhampton, would become the first port of call when looking for locations for his feature films. The Music Lovers was filmed here; Tommy and The Boy Friend were made within thirty miles of the forest boundary” (8). Coincidentally, Jacob also apparently lived in the forest and composed “New Forest Suite,” which Russell uses here in a lovely — if a bit grotesque — sequence. According to Sutton, the film was “inspired by a sight Russell had seen often since boyhood–herds of pigs running free through the forest during the acorn-falling season known as Pannage” (8).

In terms of musical episodes, this was followed by the 28-minute Prokofiev: Portrait of a Soviet Composer (1961), which also opened with shots of the countryside (this time Russian) and is a relatively straightforward — at least compared to Russell’s later musical biographies — look at the life of the great Russian composer. It moves from his childhood through to his early years writing music as a young upstart in St. Petersburg (you can’t accuse Prokofiev of lacking an abundance of sass), to his travels in America and Europe, his return to Russia and success there, and later difficulties under Stalinism, where he was constantly denounced by the government for his alleged Western influences and “idealist” atonal compositions. Like Gordon Jacob, Prokofiev wrote music for everything from ballet to cinema and, also as with that film, Elgar, and Bartok, Russell contrasts Prokofiev’s music with historical footage and, in this case, Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Prokofiev scored. The documentary (with the standard narration from Huw Wheldon) asserts that this soundtrack “for the first time made music part of the film itself.”

Calling Prokofiev “the Soviet Union’s greatest composer,” it is obvious that Russell is celebrating not only the composer’s genius — Wheldon declares that his ballet, Romeo and Juliet, “has not been surpassed to this day, either in Russia or anywhere else” — but also his stubborn individualism. And in this sense, Prokofiev does mark a break with Gordon Jacob in two ways: first, as the exploration of a somewhat rebellious contrarian, but also in the sense that Russell did not have access to either the composer himself or historical footage of Prokofiev. For the BFI, Michael Brooke wrote, “Whereas in the earlier film Russell had access to the composer himself, Sergei Prokofiev had died eight years earlier (coincidentally, on the same day as Stalin), and there appeared to be no authentic moving-image footage of him in existence. So Russell was faced with the challenge of trying to depict Prokofiev’s life in a visually imaginative way despite being handicapped by a lack of materials other than stills… Even under these limitations, Russell displays a striking visual and conceptual imagination.”

Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (1961)

And last, but certainly not least — and with no less of a sense of reverence — is Russell’s 16-minute episode, Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, also from 1961 (though I’ve heard rumors that there is a longer version of this, I was unable to find any substantial proof). This episode branches out a bit, focusing not only on a composer — that German dreamboat and devoted Nazi antagonist Kurt Weill — but also on a singer — his wife, the divine actress Lotte Lenya. It also considerably diverges from Russell’s regular approach to musical biography. Huw Wheldon opens the episode and gives a brief historical background, explaining the importance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s partnership in the ‘20s during Weimar Germany and how their musical plays together have been largely ignored since, at least up until a contemporary revival. This bears comparing to Elgar in the sense that this short film highlights the importance of a forgotten artist (or artists in this case) that Russell believed worthy of renewed discovery and celebration.

The film begins with Lenya’s performance of “Mack the Knife,” the most popular song from Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928). Lenya is perhaps the ultimate performer associated with the play, having appeared not only in the original German theatrical run, but also in Marc Blitzstein’s celebrated Off-Broadway revival in the mid-’50s, and on the recording of Louis Armstrong’s beloved American adaptation of “Mack the Knife.” In Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, she sings (in English, though her performances here are in both languages) overtop a montage of ominous historical footage from late ‘20s and early ‘30s Germany that follows the rise of Nazism, mixed with more experimental footage. Her performances are separated by more biographical, historical information from Wheldon.

She goes on to sing three more songs: “Surabaya Johnny” from The Threepenny Opera, “Alabama Song” from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (which most people now know from the covers by David Bowie and The Doors), and — my personal favorite — “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera. Aside from the initial song, the rest are set up like stage productions with the captivating Lenya on stage by herself. Wheldon continues to underline the gravity of this music in terms of the time it was written, dramatically explaining, “The sound of vengeance rang through Berlin in the early ‘30s; there was vengeance even in daydreams.” He says that Brecht and Weill were genius for their bold (often life-threatening) approach, where they used, “popular techniques to illuminate the horror and to try and conquer the approaching darkness.” There is the sense that Lenya — and Brecht and Weill’s theatrical works — have endured despite it all. I can’t concisely describe my admittedly sentimental feelings for Brecht, Weill, or Lenya, needless to say that Russell, yet again, effortlessly stresses the continued importance of these musicians and their work, something he does with every one of the aforementioned Monitor episodes.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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