Our current Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s lurid living-tableau Salome’s Last Dance, is a metatextual adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s banned stage play, Salome. It’s a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Russell’s specialty. His metatextual approach to Salome allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapidfire dry humor (as the jeering audience for a brothel-staff production of his own play) and the director’s sopping wet everything else. It’s an example of a provocateur artist lovingly tipping his hat to an even more infamous provocateur artist from our literary past, and not the only example from Russell’s own catalog.
Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to explore similar instances of Ken Russell paying homage to the over-the-top weirdo artists who inspired him.
The only other literary figure in Ken Russell’s collection of provocateur homages is the poet Lord Byron, who looms large as a horndog villain in the hallucinatory horror-drama Gothic. In Gothic, Russell dramatizes Byron’s infamously sweaty night swapping ghost stories & hallucinations with fellow writers Mary & Percy Shelley while growing increasingly mad with horniness (and laudanum!). It’s a historic event that’s been made legend by teenage lit nerds & Kate Beaton comics, if not only for inspiring Mary Shelley to pen her novel Frankenstein and, thus, effectively inventing the genre of science fiction. When seen through Russell’s eyes, however, it’s an event most interesting for its unhinged social chaos and the monstrous behavior of the evening’s host, Byron, in particular.
Whereas Salome’s Last Dance turned Oscar Wilde’s play into a series of outrageous living tableaus, Gothic reinterprets an infamous moment in literary history as a cheap haunted house chiller. After a group séance conjures a demon that disrupts their ghost story trading with some “real” (i.e. hallucinated) scares, the story that inspired the film mostly devolves into manic haunted house gags that Byron lords over in hopes of isolating every last one of his guests for an intimate sexual encounter. Like with Salome, this event is also presented through a metatextual framing device, with modern tourists snapping photographs of the estate where Byron’s horned-up antics tortured two fellow literary geniuses for his own amusement – something Russell himself can’t help but gawk at in admiration.
Gothic is Ken Russell striving to be on his worst behavior despite an unusually tight budget. It’s the exact kind of maniacally perverse spectacle you always hope for from him, staged with the resources of a Kate Bush music video stretched out to feature length. The way it depicts the Shelleys’ romantic dynamic is also surprisingly on-point about the misogyny at the core of Free Love politics, but it’d be a lie to suggest that’s the #1 issue on its mind. Mostly, the film is presented as an amoral appreciation of Lord Byron’s laudanum-fueled prurient villainy.
If Gothic finds Ken Russell’s wildest impulses restrained by a 1980s music video budget, his mid-70s rock opera Lisztomania is a glimpse of what he could do when fully allowed to run wild & torch piles of studio money. Hot off his sole mainstream hit with Tommy, Russell cast The Who frontman Roger Daltry as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in an even more obnoxious, unwieldy exercise in pure style. Lisztomania is all shrill, gleefully vapid, dialed-to-11 excess from start to tend – a Pure Sinema indulgence that’s just as obnoxious as it is magnificent. It’s essentially Ken Russell’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with all the triumphs, sleaze, and annoyances that descriptor implies.
In a proto-Velvet Goldmine meltdown between reality & fantasy, Russell positions Liszt as a glam rockstar heartthrob more befitting of the 1970s than the 1800s. The film opens backstage at a wild orgiastic party preceding one of his concerts, where hundreds of squealing teen girls demand that he play “Chopsticks” on loop in a fit of 19th Century Beatlemania. Liszt truly was a Teen Beat heartthrob in his time, and the movie remains “true” to the bullet points of his life in that way as he pursues his “art” at the expense of his his family & comrades. It’s impossible to claim that a movie where Listz’s friend/rival Richard Wagner is a literal Nazi vampire whom Liszt must smite in order to save the planet is historically accurate, but the film is at least spiritually accurate in touching on the broader details. Lisztomania is mainly a celebration of Franz Liszt as a himbo partyboy pop icon, with very little energy put into tempering or contextualizing that indulgence.
I don’t know that this registers as one of my very favorite Ken Russell pictures, but it does feel like one of the most Ken Russell pictures. If you think watching a series of films wherein a 1970s British auteur pays homage to composers, artists, and literary giants of the past sounds stuffy or pretentious, I offer this horned-up nightmare as a counterpoint. It’s an anti-Nazi glam rock opera that features vampires, Frankenstein monsters, forced-femme fantasies, paper mâché dicks, and Ringo Starr as the goddamn pope. What a beautiful, cacophonous mess.
The Music Lovers (1971)
This manic love letter to a provocateur artist of the past is aimed at 19th Century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play. It’s a lewd, lurid joy as always, but it’s one that smartly saves its most over-the-top indulgences for well-timed bursts. As a result, it very well might be my personal favorite film of this bunch—Salome’s Last Dance included—if not only for knowing how to choose its Moments wisely. If the dialed-to-11 zaniness of titles like Gothic & Lisztomania test your patience as if you were babysitting a hyperactive child, I highly recommend giving The Music Lovers a look so you can experience those same manic highs in small, manageable doses.
The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, whom Russell portrays in the film as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife due to his strongly queer sexual preferences, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, his stalker/patron, etc. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the final sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.
Watching this particular batch of Ken Russell films was an extremely rewarding exercise for me. I expected these titles to be some of Russell’s stuffiest and best-behaved, given the high-art pedigree of their historic subjects, but they turned out to be just as wild as his no-fucks-given 80s frivolities like Altered States & The Lair of the White Worm. Even The Music Lovers can be wildly over-the-top when it chooses to be, an occasional self-indulgence that landed the film fiercely negative contemporary reviews for its historical inaccuracies. As someone who cares way more about cinematic hedonism & over-the-top artifice than faithfulness to source material or historical fact, that self-pleasing blasphemy pandered directly to what I love about movies. I’m now starting to consider Ken Russell one of my very favorite directors (as opposed to just the director of Crimes of Passion, one of my very favorite movies).