Right after watching Henry V, here’s another play adapted into a movie in which the play is performed before an audience. In this case, the audience is Wilde himself, whose new Salome play has been banned so his favorite brothel treats him to a surprise performance of it. So the makeup and costumes and performances are all over the top, and every actor in this is worth at least ten of the Henry V actors. “What our production lacks in stagecraft we hope to make up in enthusiasm.”

Salome introduces herself to Wilde:

Ken Russell is what happens when a master of cinema technique is also a very silly goose. The great Glenda Jackson (Women in Love) played the queen, Stratford Johns (Lair of the White Worm) the king, Nickolas Grace (jerky guest in Sleepwalker) as Wilde, and John the Baptist was the proprietor of Black Museum. The lead actress, so good in this, never appeared in another film due to illness, but according to a Guardian article her health improved.

“To die so that the god may live is a privilege, Kevin”

British dude casually finds some 1700-year-old coins in the backyard, and an elongated skull – I thought this was Hugh Grant for a while until the real Hugh Grant appears a couple minutes later and I realized I had no idea what Peter Capaldi looked like prior to The Thick of It. They meet at a white worm party – with a white worm costume and a band playing a rowdy white worm folk song – along with the Trent sisters. Grant is out with Sammi Davis of Hope and Glory, and her sister Eve is Catherine Oxenberg of the Yugoslavian royal family, who started her career playing princess Diana on a TV movie, and most recently appeared in Ratpocalypse and Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf.

Our fearless foursome:

Everyone is talking like they’re on a sitcom, but a few short minutes later, Lady Sylvia Marsh is introduced sucking on the leg of constable Ernie (Return of the Jedi‘s rancor keeper) and the movie gets good ‘n’ crazy, and stays that way. It’s cool that Grant and Capaldi are here, but Amanda Donohoe is the movie. Looks like I can see her with Sammi Davis and Glenda Jackson in Russell’s The Rainbow, and I probably should.

Lady Marsh takes a boy scout home and feeds him to the worm-god in her basement, and Eve is taken captive next. Sylvia is excessively horny during these scenes, while the others are eating damp sandwiches, searching for signs of the long-missing Trent parents. Grant gets the Stendhal Syndrome and climbs inside a painting. Snake imagery abounds, the script is all entendres, and the visuals flit between ace makeup/lighting and insane greenscreen dream-mayhem. Most horror filmmakers are content to make normal-looking movies with a few crazy visual bits – Russell isn’t happy unless the crazy bits completely overwhelm the normal stuff.

After my second reference this month to a christian order building atop pagan grounds, Grant steps up to his destiny, and plays snake-charming music on a PA system while the team attacks the castle with help from a worm-hunting mongoose. Mary is accosted by her undead mum, then by the possessed cop, but Capaldi saves the day with snake-luring bagpipes and drops a hand grenade down the worm-god’s throat. This plan obviously took some prep, but it’s also an emergency rescue mission, so was it necessary to change into the kilt?

There’s an Oscar Wilde quote – Russell made a Wilde movie the same year. Grant appears here the year after starring in a James Ivory film, Capaldi five years after Local Hero. Partly based on a Bram Stoker novel, partly on the legend of the Lambton Worm, and I guess largely made up by Russell.

“It may be over between us, but it’s not finished.”

I find it immediately annoying that the first two listed stars of WOMEN in Love are Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. Women can’t even star in their own movie! But I stopped being annoyed almost immediately. I think this was Ken’s third theatrical feature after Billion Dollar Brain and the little-known French Dressing, and it’s intoxicating, successfully applying all his (and his actors’) stylistic excess to a period novel by D.H. Lawrence about doomed rich people.

Jackson taunts some cows:

Linden and Bates:

The doom begins early on, as all our main characters meet at the wedding of two vibrant young lovers who drown together soon afterwards. I think Oliver Reed (star of The Devils) was the bride’s brother, and Bates (The Go-Between, Dr. M) is his friend.


Also at the party: two sisters with great names (Gudrun and Ursula) and extravagant, attention-grabbing host Eleanor Bron (four years after Help!), who is dating major romantic Bates until he takes up with Ursula (Jennie Linden, lately of a Dr. Who movie), while his more intense, coal-mine manager buddy Reed goes with red-haired Gudrun (Glenda Jackson of Hopscotch, later an anti-Thatcher member of parliament who ran twice for mayor of London)

Thinking ’bout Eleanor Bron:

Bates and Ursula get married and take a ski trip with the others. Reed is jealous and old-fashioned, disapproves of Gudrun’s friendship with a local sculptor, finally nearly strangles her then tromps off into the snow to freeze to death.

The title made me think there’d be a lesbian story but instead we get Bates and Reed wrestling completely nude by the fire, and the ending implies that the great love story of the film was Bates and Reed’s friendship.

This movie got heaps of award nominations including 11 from the Baftas (but Midnight Cowboy and Oh! What a Lovely War cleaned up) and 4 from the Oscars, with Glenda Jackson winning most of them, and made Russell’s reputation in Britain. Wikipedia says the book was a sequel (the sisters appeared in earlier novel The Rainbow) and Bates’s character may have been Lawrence’s stand-in.

I’d heard that Criterion will be releasing this, hopefully as a precursor to the uncut The Devils, and since I so enjoyed Tommy, I thought I’d check it out. But I got my wires crossed – Criterion is putting out Quadrophenia, the other post-Tommy, Who-related feature, not Lisztomania. Their loss! My loss too, I guess, since I probably would’ve rented this again just to hear what the commentary track would say about things like this:

Oh but wait, my DVD does have a commentary track by a sleepy Ken Russell, who rouses himself to tell us spectacularly obvious things about once per minute – I didn’t play through very much of it.

Train vs. Piano:

Roger Daltrey brings his boyish energy from Tommy straight into this, as enthusiastic womanizer and rock-star pianist Franz Liszt. He throws parties, hold concerts, flees from sword-wielding husbands, and generally ignores his own wife (Fiona Lewis of The Fury and Innerspace) and children. When his daughter Cosima marries his rival Richard Wagner (I already know how Russell feels about Wagner), Liszt must travel to Wagner’s castle (in a loopy Dracula parody scene) and prevent them from creating a nazi superman.

Vampiric Wagner:

Bored Liszt at home with wife:

In the middle of the film, Liszt goes to Russia and stays with Princess Carolyn (Sara Kestelman of Zardoz) in her penis-decorated palace, leading to a fantastic, cock-filled chorus-girl number. I don’t know why exactly, but Liszt joins the church (under Pope Ringo Starr) sometime later. This is what leads him to fight Wagner (Paul Nicholas, Tommy‘s sadistic cousin Kevin), who is defeated but resurrected as a Frankenstein Siegfried Hitler, who guns down Jews while Liszt’s daughter kills her dad with voodoo. But murdered Liszt returns to Earth from heaven in an angel-winged rocketship, gunning down FrankenWagner, achieving peace at last. All of this really happens. This movie is amazing.

Hitler/Wagner with electric-guitar machine-gun alongside Cosima and Superman-caped children brigade wearing Weezer/Wagner t-shirts:

Liszt with Piano Flamethrower:

Russell: “My film isn’t biography. It comes from things I feel when I listen to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and when I think about their lives.”

The Princess:

Senses of Cinema: “By Russell’s account, producer David Puttnam interfered with the project, insisting on more pop art and less context, and also adding the painfully stupid hoedown music to the opening scene.” They also point out visual references to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in the Russian scenes.

“Tommy is the only rock opera ever made” – Ken Russell

Sad Ann-Margret’s husband is killed in the war. Some time later she goes on vacation and meets Bernie (Oliver Reed) at a resort. He moves in, but one night the husband returns, disfigured from a plane crash, and Bernie kills him in front of little Tommy, who’s told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, won’t say anything. And so he doesn’t ever again.

Tommy grows up to be curly-haired space-cadet Roger Daltrey. He’s not healed by attending Eric Clapton’s church of Marilyn worship, nor when Bernie gives him a night with extreme drug fiend Tina Turner (filling in for David Bowie), nor when he’s left with psychically abusive babysitter Paul Nicholas or sexually abusive Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon), nor from a visit to Dr. Jack Nicholson (filling in for Christopher Lee).

But one day Tommy finds something he’s good at. After defeating Elton John (who agreed to be in the movie provided he got to keep these boots) at a pinball championship, he becomes famous and attracts hundreds of groupies.

At home, mom celebrates their new wealth by throwing a bottle of champagne through the television and writhing in the bubbles, baked beans and chocolate that pour forth from the damaged set.

Tommy breaks through his mom’s mirror and starts speaking again, becomes a messiah to kids everywhere, his symbol a cross with a pinball on top. Mom is his biggest supporter, and stepdad Bernie is the financial wizard, plotting to set up Tommy camps everywhere and sell merchandise everywhere else. But their prefab religion backfires and the kids revolt, killing Tommy’s parents. But he lives to bathe in waterfalls and climb mountains with a big cheery grin.

It’s a ridiculous story, a twisted excuse for lots of music and celebrity cameos. Russell was never a huge fan of rock music (I’m not a big Who fan myself, really only enjoy “I’m a Sensation” from this soundtrack), had written a follow-up to The Devils called The Angels about false religion, which he couldn’t get off the ground. When offered to direct a movie with sympathetic ideas to his own, which Russell could help mold (he got Pete Townshend to write additional scenes and change plot details) with a pre-sold celebrity cast – a batshit-crazy musical story that needed visual accompaniment – how could Ken say no? It might not be Ken’s purest personal vision, but I double-featured it with Song of Summer as memorial screenings when I heard he’d died.

Unsurprisingly produced by Robert Stigwood, who produced Jesus Christ Superstar (and later Grease). Oliver Reed (of The Devils, of course) was doing Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies around the same time. Daltrey would be back with Russell on Lisztomania, which I need to see. And Ann-Margret needs to be much more popular – she was fantastic in this.

The House Is Black (1963, Forugh Farrokhzad)

I’ve seen this a couple times before, and there’s really nothing to be said. Farrokhzad brings poetry to a leper colony, with thrilling results. It sits alongside Sans Soleil and Resnais’s 1950’s shorts as a supreme example of the possibilities of the personal documentary form. Katy was happy to watch it, and cringed from the images less than I thought she would.

Pumzi (2009, Wanuri Kahiu)

Usually a young aspiring filmmaker will make a short to prove her abilities before moving on to more expensive feature-length films, but Kahiu’s feature drama From a Whisper predated this slick, expensive-looking 20-minute sci-fi film.

Between watching this and Hello Dolly, we are having an unintended WALL-E tribute week. Story goes that Asha lives in a tightly-regulated base in a post-WWIII wasteland. No plant life grows outside, all water is obsessively recycled and rationed, and each resident has to generate their own daily portion of electricity via exercise machines. An outsider sends Asha a soil sample that seems able to sustain life, and when the authorities try to suppress her discovery, she sneaks outside, treks through the desert to the origin point of the soil sample, plants a tree and shelters it with her body. But then we’re confused by the final shot, aerial pull-out beneath the PUMZI title, which appears to show her lonely tree off to the east and a vast forest to the west.

Entr’acte (1924, René Clair)

Twenty-minute film shown during intermission at a play with music by Erik Satie. Clair pulled out all the cinematic tricks he could think of – flashy editing, speed changes, superimposition, stop-motion. He brings the camera on a rollercoaster and positions it under a glass table on which a dancer is leaping.

There is kind of a story – a man with a bird on his hat gets shot, falls off a building. After his funeral procession goes wrong, he pops out of the coffin then makes the pallbearers disappear. Also: Marcel Duchamp plays chess with Man Ray. Ah, early surrealism, how I love it.

Nothing But Time (1926, Alberto Cavalcanti)

“This is not a depiction of the fashionable and elegant life…”

“…but of the everyday life of the humble, the downtrodden.”

A city-symphony short, portraying the work day, after hours, early morning, leisure, crime, etc. – a visual, non-narrative social issues movie with mournful music. It’s nice to watch, but the message seems to come down to “gee, it sucks to be poor.” I dig the montage of vegetables becoming garbage the next day

Crazy split screen – all these puzzle pieces are in motion:

Best shot: inside a man’s steak dinner you can watch the cow being slaughtered:

Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (1960, Ken Russell)

A slightly strange blending of the omniscient documentary and an artist-interview film – an invisible narrator talks about Delaney in the third person then she responds. It’s shot like an interview, but more like a drama in parts, the camera already in her house when she opens the door and comes in like an actress ignoring it. The opposite effect when the crew follows her into town to the market, where every single person stares at the camera.

It’s exciting to explore Ken Russell’s early work, but the heart of the movie is Delaney and her words. Unfortunately she speaks mainly in cliches about the life and heart of the city, which doesn’t make me anxious to see her plays. Delaney wrote Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus and was a huge influence on The Smiths.

From Spain to Streatham (1959, Ken Russell)

A boy plays along with Elvis Presley’s record of “Hound Dog,” thus ensuring that this little film will never see a DVD release. I wonder where that boy is now, and if he’s pleased with himself.

A ten-minute survey of the national craze over guitars, an appropriate short subject for Russell, who loved classical music and was bemused by rock. It moves from kids destroying an old piano in a courtyard to an older kid jamming on his guitar to a professional music school to a teacher in prisons, religious singers on a street corner, and so on.

“Where are the tambourines of yesteryear?”

“Poets are for each other.”

Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, between The Keep and Miller’s Crossing) has four friends over to his mansion. They stay up late drinking just tons of laudanum, having sex and challenging each other to write scary stories.

Lord Byrne:

Supposedly this one night spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as the first vampire story published in English, so dramatists and horror historians love to revisit it. I haven’t seen the others, but for sheer imagery and inventiveness, it’s hard to imagine anyone topping Russell and this great movie. The actors are into it, throwing themselves histrionically into the fantasy. Fun music, even cartoonish at times, by Thomas Dolby. Things get increasingly traumatic and dreamlike as the night wears on, with apparent murders and accidents and Mary Godwin’s (she hadn’t yet married Shelley) visions of her dead child. Strange ending, as they’re all perfectly fine in the morning, then a present-day tour boat gives a rushed narrative postscript.

Timothy Spall (in his second Frankstein-related film in a row, after appearing in The Bride with Sting and Jennifer Beals) is Dr. Polidori, commissioned to write a biography of Byron. I never quite figured his character out (though I love watching Timothy Spall, so it’s not important), but reading later that he became famous for his vampire story gave new meaning to this scene where he’s harmed from touching the cross on his wall.

Miriam Cyr (only in a few movies, but three are Frankenstein-related) is Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin/Shelley, who had a child with Byron the following year. Miriam may have been cast for her ability to open her eyes unusually wide.

Boyishly energetic Julian Sands (year after A Room With a View) plays Shelley, and Natasha Richardson (Asylum, The Handmaid’s Tale) is Mary. Sands kicks things into high gear early in the night, running naked onto the rooftops trying to catch lightning (definite Frankenstein reference).

Shelley, Mary, Polidori:

They summon a creature during a seance, Sands goes out to the shed and gets spooked, Polidori goes to bed early then appears as a dismembered head on the floor. Goblins, giant snakes and living suits of armor roam the house. There are swords, guns, torches and hangings, and somehow they all end up in the basement covered in filth.

“We’re dead. It’s shown me the torture it has in store for us. Our creature – it will be there waiting in the shadows, in the shape of our fears, until it has seen us to our deaths.”

Ivan Passer filmed a version of this story two years later, with Eric Stoltz in the Sands role, Alex Winter in the Spall role, and Laura Dern as Claire. Also in ’88, the same year he was in Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, Hugh Grant played Byron in yet another version, with Elizabeth Hurley as Claire.

“Help me someone! There’s a crazy woman in here trying to castrate me!”

The Poe-injected story goes that rock star Roddy Usher killed his wife in a fit of madness so now he’s in hospital under the care of Dr. Calahari. But “story” is just an excuse for Ken. He got himself a DV camera (with built-in microphone), grabbed every silly prop and goofy actor he could find, and set to work making a camp comic “horror” flick. The credits say “Designed, Photographed, Edited, Produced & Directed by KEN RUSSELL (who also did the Cooking),” so this was a backyard hobby project. That page doesn’t even mention writing (he shares credit with Poe) or acting.

Starring: Ken Russell

And have I mentioned it’s a musical? Full of puns and hammy awfulness and prank props and silly-ass music. Sounds nightmarishly awful, and I’m not some super-freakish Ken Russell fan who would forgive him a terrible movie. But, surprise! Shock! It’s not a terrible movie! At least I didn’t think so, as I quickly went from groaning at the self-conscious awfulness to laughing along. Mad Ken must be on the same camp-wavelength as me, which I should have guessed after seeing his Trapped Ashes episode.


Of course it helps that I liked the music, composed by Usher himself James Johnston (who also played a rock star in Clean – Maggie Cheung’s dead husband). Upsettingly, Nurse ABC Schmidt (Marie Findley) hasn’t appeared in other films. Sweet Annabelle Lee (Emma Millions) played “Tart” in Ken’s short Lion’s Mouth – bad move not including that on the Usher DVD. Russell’s wife played Usher’s sister (also a mummy in the second half) and the guy who played Igor (he stayed behind a mask) has been in Russell movies as far back as the 60’s.

This guy, an experimental patient whose life Ken has been prolonging through chemicals or electricity or something, portrayed “Death” in a recent Woody Allen film.


I’d be afraid to watch this again. It doesn’t seem in retrospect like anything I would’ve enjoyed, so it might’ve just caught me in a perfectly receptive mood. As of this viewing, my only complaint is that there weren’t enough musical numbers in the second half.

Amazingly, this nearly decade-old movie is Ken’s most recent full-length, coming a few years after his string of not-at-all-acclaimed TV movies.

Ken looks dismayed at his lack of DVD sales:

“A comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949” Strauss is played as a power-hungry megalomaniac by Christopher Gable (also of Russell’s Tchaikovsky film The Music Lovers). The film itself is fanciful and alive, and surely one of the best biographic movies I’ve seen.


Only two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Russell accompanies that film’s big opening song with shots of a caveman who soon runs into religious mania and screaming nuns (both of which would be rampant in The Devils the following year).


“Alas, the time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars. The dead end of mankind is approaching.” I could quote every line and display stills from every shot. This seems way too extravagant to be a made-for-public-television movie, and too good to be a long-censored rarity. Only ten years until this can be shown legally despite the Strauss family’s objections, unless copyright law is extended like it always is.


We get a love triangle in the box seats at the opera, scenes of Macbeth, Don Quixote, a fun Salome with two lead actresses, and the infamous garden party with the nazis. Yes, the film does feature Strauss giving Hitler a piggyback ride, both of them grinning and playing violins. Various fantasies, both nightmarish (Allied soldiers interrupt Strauss’s innocent mountain vacation and murder his family) and wishful (his glorious music pounds critics into submission).


Kenneth Colley (Jesus in Life of Brian) – the only actor to play both Jesus and Hitler?

“A life completely away from politics and war – that is what I’ve always longed for.” Ends with a speech by an aged Strauss distancing himself from the nazi party, “There’s no stain on my character. These nazis are criminals, I’ve always known that.” But a minute later complains about “Jewish stubbornness” before catching himself. Russell partly credits Richard Strauss with scenario/dialogue, saying he used the man’s own words in the script. A scathing portrayal.


IMDB has incomplete credits. Judith Paris (a nun in The Devils) played Strauss’s wife Pauline, Vladek Sheybal (camp classic The Apple, Russell’s Women In Love) was Goebbels and Imogen Claire (appeared in and choreographed Lisztomania) was one of the two Salomes.


Tape number at top of screenshots provided so the BBC can locate their tapes and release this properly. Timecode (below) provided so you can easily find your favorite scenes. Thank me later.

The MBC:

The complete title reveals Russell’s intention to create a satirical political cartoon on the life of the German composer, who Russell saw as a “self-advertising, vulgar, commercial man . . . [a] crypto-Nazi with the superman complex underneath the facade of the distinguished elderly composer.” And, although, according to Russell, “95 percent of what Strauss says in the film he actually did say in his letters and other writings,” many critics and viewers found Russell’s treatment of the venerated composer itself to be vulgar.