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ELGAR. PORTRAIT OF A COMPOSER
When John Schlesinger left the BBC arts program Monitor in 1959 to pursue a career in feature films, Ken Russell was hired to replace him on the program as a director of documentaries. According to Russell, his task there was to make films that were "inviting, accessible, and entertaining." He made short documentary profiles of people as diverse as Spike Milligan, the creator and costar (along with Peter Sellers) of the BBC Radio comedy program The Goon Show, the playwright Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), and the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. He stayed with Monitor and its successor series Omnibus for the next ten years, until he too left to make feature films. When Russell made his first documentary on a composer for Monitor, on Sergei Prokofiev in 1961, he asked the producer if he could hire an actor to re-create some scenes from Prokofiev's life. The producer was horrified at the idea of adding anything remotely fictional to a serious, high-toned documentary film but finally relented and allowed Russell one shot of an actor impersonating the composer, but only seen in reflection in a pond filled with floating leaves.
When Russell made his next film on a composer the following year, it was immediately apparent how far his and his producer's vision of what was permissible in a BBC documentary had progressed in the interval. This time the subject was the British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934), and the complete title of the episode is Elgar: Portrait of a Composer. If this didn't convey the message that Russell's approach to his subject was going to take the definition of such a film in new directions, then the opening minutes of the film certainly did. After a brief voice-over statement that Elgar spent much of his boyhood riding in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire, where he was born and grew up, for the next two minutes we see nothing but a young boy riding a pony across Malvern landscapes while Elgar's rhapsodic Introduction and Allegro for Strings plays on the soundtrack, a two-minute long cinematic tone poem.
Elgar contains no spoken dialogue, only voice-over narration that summarizes the composer's life and occasionally quotes from letters, diaries, and even postcards written to his daughter. But if the narration is conventional, the imagery that accompanies it most definitely is not. Russell illustrates the straightforward biographical narration with a combination of dramatized re-creations of scenes from Elgar's life—some shot with a hand-held camera to emulate the immediacy of newsreels and home movies—landscapes, still lifes, still photographs, and genuine period newsreel footage, all set to the glorious music of the composer. Using a mélange of images, inventive camera work and editing, music, sound effects, and narration, Russell overturns the traditionally impersonal tone of an established genre and replaces it with the personal vision of an inspired filmmaker. If today this approach to the biographical documentary seems less experimental than it once did, Elgar still seems remarkably fresh, and I think that's because of Russell's thorough commitment to finding creative ways to tell the story of Elgar and his music.
He also uses Elgar to explore themes he would delve into in greater detail in later films made for Monitor and Omnibus on composers and painters. Taken together, his ideas on these themes can be considered a working treatise of Russell's views on the nature of art and artists. Through Elgar's relationship with his wife Alice, Russell explores the intersection of artists' personal lives and relationships with their art. In emphasizing how many years it took Elgar to be accepted as a serious composer—in part at least because of his lower middle-class background and lack of formal musical training—Russell explores the ways that artists' battles with society can inhibit critical and popular recognition of their genius. Most significantly, he explores the sources of the artist's inspiration, here by focusing on the relationship between Elgar's music and the natural world. Elgar was a self-professed plein-air composer who always composed outdoors and claimed to draw his inspiration from nature, a source of inspiration hinted at from the very beginning of the film in that opening sequence of the young Elgar riding across the countryside.
Above all, Russell tells the story of Elgar's life through his music, using the music to comment on events in the composer's life. This marriage of Elgar's music with Russell's images reaches its peak in the last few minutes of the film. As a passage from the elegiac Second Symphony plays on the soundtrack, we see newsreel footage of the funeral procession of King Edward VII in 1910, which then segues into newsreel footage of World War I, while the soundtrack slowly segues into Elgar's most familiar work, the Pomp and Circumstance march. We are told how the sentimental and patriotic associations with that work were exploited to manipulate public feelings about the war and how this jingoistic appropriation of his music appalled Elgar, leading to his dismay with the modern world as a place with "no soul, no romance, and no imagination" and finally to his last great work, the hauntingly beautiful and mournful Cello Concerto, one of my own favorite pieces of classical music. (You may recall Jacqueline du Pré's exquisite version from the movie Hilary and Jackie of a few years ago.) After the sudden death of his wife Alice, Elgar gave up composing and returned to Worcestershire, and we see him making the journey across the Malvern landscapes in his automobile in a mirror image of the opening sequence, as the concluding section of Introduction and Allegro for Strings, the same piece used in that opening sequence, plays. The closing montage of the elderly Elgar confined to his bed as he drifts through his memories while the Enigma Variations plays on the soundtrack is almost unbearably sad.
If Elgar seems far removed from the standard highbrow BBC documentary of the time on a great artist, the next work in the set seems to come from another universe altogether. To call The Debussy Film innovative would be a tremendous understatement, so extreme a departure is it from anything one might have expected from the BBC circa 1965 or even from the imaginative director of Elgar. Revolutionary would be more like it, for the film constitutes an all-out assault on the traditional documentary film biography, finding startling new ways to tell the story of the life of a famous person on film and to match storytelling technique to the particulars of the subject's life.
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