October 24, 2011

6 Ken Russell at the BBC, Part 4: Song of Summer (1968)

The final film in the six-film box set of Ken Russell's work at the BBC in the 1960s is on the English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934). Of all the films in the set, this is the closest in its narrative organization to a conventional feature and the most subdued in tone. It is also the only film of the six based not on an original screenplay but on an existing source, the book Delius As I Knew Him by Eric Fenby, who collaborated with Russell on the screenplay, and it is to this that Russell attributes his stylistic restraint: "Song of Summer was less fragmentary and kaleidoscopic than some of my work. But the book was a straightforward story [with] a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there didn't seem to be any point in jazzing it up." Although the least tricked up film in the set, it is ultimately the most satisfying, a moving work that offers Russell's most profound insights yet into the creative mind of the artist.

The film covers the last five years of Delius's life and his association with a young Yorkshireman, Eric Fenby, a self-taught musician and composer who became Delius's assistant during this time. Hearing a work by Delius on the radio one evening, Fenby writes to Delius's wife Jelka offering his services. By this time, Delius is paralyzed and blind and has for several years been unable to compose. Jelka invites Fenby to join them in their house outside Paris, where they have lived essentially in isolation for more than thirty years. Fenby finds the atmosphere of the household "sinister" (his room is decorated with a copy of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream) and Delius cranky, opinionated, and demanding. At first the two don't get along. Unimpressed by Fenby's limited musical education and inability to follow the composer's attempts to dictate his musical ideas for transcription, Delius bullies the diffident young man mercilessly. Fenby manages to form a close relationship with Jelka, though, and she encourages him to stand up to Delius.

Fenby does assert himself, and eventually, through trial and error, the two are able to work out a method of musical dictation that makes it possible for Delius to begin composing again. The bulk of Delius's compositions were impressionistic tone poems based on natural scenes and elements—places, seasons, the time of day, for example—and although very different in temperament, the two men have one important thing in common that allows them to forge a working relationship: their ability to hear the music in nature and to use that as the source of their inspiration. When Fenby puts a broadcast of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the radio, Delius reacts dismissively: "Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler and that lot. . . . A complete waste of time. . . . Listen to the music of nature. Forget the immortals. I did long ago."

The scenes of their first successful working sessions together, about half an hour into the film, are just stunning. Film biographies have often attempted to portray the almost subliminal communication of creative minds that can occur when songwriters work together, but Russell's depiction of this process in Song of Summer is far ahead of any other attempt of this kind that I'm aware of. The film critic Richard Schickel once called Song of Summer "the best dramatic television program I've ever seen" because of its insights into the creative process and the creative personality, and I have to say that, along with Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, it's the best film of any kind on these subjects I've seen. As he slowly returns to life, Delius doesn't abandon his waspish personality altogether, but you can nevertheless sense an easing of his frustration and hostility. And you can see his attitude toward Fenby evolve into something resembling gratitude as the two collaborate to translate the melodies in Delius's mind into musical notation. For his part Fenby is very much the receptor in all this—he describes himself as Delius's "amanuensis"—but you can sense his active pleasure in enabling the great composer to regain his creative voice.

The film may concentrate on the last five years of Delius's life, but as he develops greater intimacy with Fenby, he opens up to him and begins reminiscing about the past, and this permits Russell to work in unobtrusive biographical details about Delius. Two episodes from Delius's past are particularly striking. One is of his experiences in Florida as a young man working as a factor on an orange plantation near Jacksonville. After Delius asks Jelka to play a recording of "Ol' Man River" on the gramophone, he tells his young assistant of the profound effect on him of the African American music of Florida, its spontaneous sense of harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint such a contrast to the academic music of Europe. It was in Florida, he tells Fenby, that "I first felt the urge to express myself in music."

The other experience, this time shown in flashback, is one that happened in Norway years earlier, when he could no longer walk but before he lost his sight. He wanted to go to the top of a nearby mountain to see the sunset and was taken there in a chair carried by Jelka, his friend the English composer Percy Grainger, and a Norwegian servant. This is a beautifully conceived sequence which shows the group ascending higher up the snow-covered mountain through clouds that grow ever denser. Then suddenly at the last moment they break through the clouds at the top of the mountain and see the sun setting in the distance. All this is accompanied by glorious music by Delius that exactly corresponds to the mood of the images, building in intensity until it suddenly seems to resolve itself tonally, soar free, and float away in an almost mystical sense of calm and release. Visually and dramatically, this small, technically simple sequence is the centerpiece of the film, a return to the melding of rapturous music with rapturous imagery that distinguished Russell's earlier biographical films on Edward Elgar and Claude Debussy.

In the earlier films in the set, Russell tended to use non-professional actors—often choosing them, like Fellini, for their faces—and to mold their characterizations himself through the writing, photography, and editing. But in Song of Summer, with its more conventional narrative approach, he concentrates more on getting his main actors to create sustained characterizations. And it pays off. Christopher Gable, who plays Eric Fenby, was a ballet dancer who had appeared in only one television program before this film. But he seems wholly comfortable with his character here, conveying all the boyish enthusiasm, hero worship, and insecurity of the young Fenby. Later, as he becomes a full-fledged collaborator with Delius, he makes plain Fenby's greater maturity and self-confidence. (He would go on to work with Russell five more times before his death in 1998.)

Maureen Pryor, an experienced film and television actress who plays Delius's wife Jelka, grounds her character in Jelka's selfless devotion to her husband and her motherly but companionable support of Fenby. Her finest moment comes when Delius delivers a tirade to Fenby against marriage. "It's only from your art you will find lasting happiness in your life," he tells Fenby, then advises him that if he must marry, marry a woman who is more devoted to his art than to him. The blind Delius cannot see the effect his thoughtless words have on Jelka, but we can, and the pain provoked by his insensitivity registers clearly on her face.

As good as those two actors are, though, it is really Max Adrian as Delius who carries the film. At this point in his life, Delius is paralyzed, confined to a wheel chair, and blind. His character unable to gesture or use his body, unable to see, his eyes often concealed behind dark glasses, and his facial expressions immobilized by his illness, Adrian must create a portrait of Delius largely through his voice. Despite these limitations, he gives Delius a tremendously vivid personality. Another of Russell's troubled geniuses, he has the additional burden of being an artist still in possession of his full creative ability, but physically unable to express it. His resentment of his dependence on Fenby gradually becomes tolerance then admiration as Fenby subsumes his own creativity to Delius's and becomes a channel for the great composer's inspiration. Delius may never entirely lose his irascibility and egotism, but Adrian lets us see some of the sharp edges to his personality begin to soften and suggests just a touch of increasing regard for someone other than himself.

Song of Summer is a remarkable finale to the six works in this box set. Beginning with Elgar, the closest to a traditional biographical documentary, Russell proceeds in these films through stages that become more and more idiosyncratic. "There are certain points in every film I do, where I deliberately want to shock people into awareness," he once said in an interview, and in these works you can see him honing this vision of cinema as shock treatment. Finally he arrives at Song of Summer, in which he synthesizes all he has done in the previous films and integrates it into a more subdued yet still emotionally intense experience. To follow Russell through these six films is to be taken through the successive phases of a truly original filmmaker's experimentation with how to tell the life stories of artists in innovative ways. It's a journey well worth taking.


  1. R.D. - These have been some fascinating reviews over the past few weeks. I hope to catch this box set via one of the local libraries if it becomes available. I have always loved film about artists and the creative drive.


  2. John, thanks. I sure hope you're able to locate these and have time to watch all six. No matter what one thinks of Russell's later work, these are consistently interesting for their style alone. And for anyone interested in art or artists or the nature of creativity, the subjects are fascinating as well.

  3. "The bulk of Delius's compositions were impressionistic tone poems based on natural scenes and elements—places, seasons, the time of day, for example—and although very different in temperament, the two men have one important thing in common that allows them to forge a working relationship: their ability to hear the music in nature and to use that as the source of their inspiration. When Fenby puts a broadcast of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the radio, Delius reacts dismissively: "Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler and that lot. . . . A complete waste of time. . . . Listen to the music of nature. Forget the immortals. I did long ago."

    OK, I've heard enough. I can stand it no longer. I am a beaten man. I will be officially ordering this set this evening on amazon, as it's clear now after weeks of some of your finest writing that they essential for classical music lovers, Russell fans, and collectors. Ironically enough I am a huge Delius fan as I mentioned in previous threads and own and adore Peter Weigl's ravishing opera film "A Village Romeo and Juliet," Delius' most famous work in that form. The segment I copied above is a hoot. Delius was so immersed in nature (like Charles Ives and Michael Tillson Thomas and of course the great Finn Jean Sibelius)that he lost his enthusiasm for any form that didn't connect with the elements he found were most vital to the true musical experience. At one point several years ago I went through an obsessive stage with Delius, and ordered minor works, trying to experience the breath of his output. I still don't think he's ever equalled "Village" or it's glorious centerpiece "A Walk to the Paradise Garden," but I find a good deal of his work sublime. I must say I look forward to watching this installment most of all and must again thank you for treating the internet community to this kind of quality writing and exquisite subject.

  4. Sam, I'm so glad you appreciated this post. The last couple of posts on this set haven't gotten nearly the number of page views as the first two, so I guess people are getting tired of hearing about these films. It's a shame because for me they just kept getting more interesting, and the one on Delius was the best of all and, I would say, the most accessible for the general viewer. I saw it years ago on PBS, the only one of these I had seen before I ran across this set (although I had heard about the film on Isadora), and that's why I decided to give it a try. Am I glad I did.

    After you recommended the "Walk to the Paradise Garden," I looked for it on YouTube and watched a 13-minute long section from the very Peter Weigl film you mention. "Ravishing" is certainly the word to describe it! I'm sure you will recognize far more of the music played in Russell's Delius film than I did and appreciate the way it's used to comment on the action better than I did. But I was able to grasp in a general way how carefully Russell tried to match music to image, and that's certainly an important part of the film's appeal. Now I just hope you find this set as enjoyable as I've made it out to be.

  5. I'm happy to report that I picked up the BBC boxed set at the library today and am looking forward to sitting down and watching each of Russell's - diverse - biographies. Thanks, R.D., for six deeply interesting reviews...can hardly wait to get started.

  6. Eve, hope you find this of interest. I'm stilling mulling over "Vertigo" and will get back to you about it soon.