Ken Russell at the BBC

For a film director whose very name could stir up fistfights among cinema enthusiasts during the 1970s, it?s striking how little remembered Ken Russell has become. Although he?s still active in his native Britain, Russell hasn?t had a Stateside hit since 1980?s Altered States, and in that time a new generation or two of cinematic bad boys has stepped into the rebel slot that must perennially be filled. Still, anyone of an age to have experienced Russell?s flamboyantly over-the-top, socially contentious, and sexually forthcoming work on release, or those who brave viewing it on DVD, know that this was a director, who, for all his glaring self-indulgence and slam-bang provocation, is not to be simply dismissed as merely a product of his time. If the relatively staid Women in Love remains the ?safe? masterpiece, the visual and narrative tumult of films like Tommy and Lisztomania retain the power to polarize audiences today. Large budgets were part and parcel of Russell?s grand mature vision, but to see what he could do with restricted means, turn to Ken Russell at the BBC, a three-disc set that collects six of his made-for-television biographies of celebrated artists. With a touch that grew ever more assured following the convention-bound Elgar of 1962, Russell skillfully employs lush lyricism, self-conscious experimentation, overt emotionality, irreverent humor, and high seriousness in absorbing portraits of such iconic figures as Isadora Duncan, Henri Rousseau, Claude Debussy, and Frederick Delius. Outrageous stuff? Not yet, but Russell was just warming up.

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