A Musicological Study of Ken Russell’s Composer Films – Part 7 (Pop Aesthetics).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. 

The Use of Rock and Pop Aesthetics in Lisztomania (1975) and Tommy (1975).

While the sociological reaction to classical music is a debatable area, Ken Russell had a very clear vision of how classical composers at least ought to have been received.  A moment in Mahler briefly summarises this idea, where Mahler is uncomfortable but ultimately pleased at the fawning crowd outside his train, desperate for glimpse of the famous Dr. Mahler.  It’s a theme present throughout a number of his classical music films; that of the potential parallel between the reactions of listeners in previous centuries and the reactions of (especially younger) audiences in the time that Russell was most prolific in his filmmaking (the 1960s up to the early 1980s).

Two films made after Russell’s transitional period reflect this overtly, both being made in the same year and using different methods to readdress the image of classical music and its composers.  It appears that Russell and his creative prism wished to show the potential “cool” aesthetic of artworks considered more stuffy during the era of when the films were made.  Being made during the same year also allows an ease of comment and a dialectic relationship between them as well.  After making Mahler, Russell went on to make Tommy (1975) and Lizstomania (1975); two films that share a number of aesthetic likenesses and carry the same message.

This message is that recontextualising classical forms with modern-day cultural tropes is in fact not so much a creation of period disparities (which is what it visually and aurally appears to be) but a re-evaluation of the cultural norms and reception of the classical forms.  This section will be split into two segments in order to address the issues raised by the two separate films.  The latter section will show how using the most prominent of popular music ideas could be used to extend the ideas of Russell’s transitional period to create the ultimate satire; the following section will look at how the Russell prism re-appropriated the classical form of the opera in order to show the merit of popular music by using a classical form.

Tommy and the use of Classical Form to Promote Popular Creativity.

Even though Tommy is not about the life or narrative interpretation of a classical composer, it is vital to discuss for a number of reasons.  The first is its obvious contextualising of the films that followed it, namely Lisztomania, which is an extremely complex film that requires essential, all round reading to grasp its understanding.  The other main reason for discussing a film so clearly imbued with all that was huge about 1970s popular culture, is that it transposes all this back to its audience through a very specific, classical form.  This is the one instance where the Russell prism actually works in reverse.

Tommy is described, both by the director and the film’s various promotions, as a “Rock Opera”; quite possibly the most Russell-esque amalgamation of ideas conceivable.  It uses the music of The Who to tell an illogically surreal story of a blind, death, and dumb young boy who goes on to conquer the world of rock star fame and celebrity by becoming extremely gifted at playing pinball machines.  Tommy is made in the era of a number of Rock and Pop musicals but separates itself by not having any of the respite that the other genre often provides for the viewer through diegetic dialogue.

Russell is strict with his operatic form, having virtually no diegetic dialogue and with everything being sung by the cast, even when they are clearly lacking in singing technique and ability (see Oliver Reed’s often out-of-tune ramshackle performance).  By being so clearly adhering to the classical form, Russell is showing a desire to contextualise an apparent lower culture into the form of a higher one.  This was the basis for Dickinson’s entire article on Russell’s composer biopics but it was also the tunnel-vision commitment to this idea that meant her writing largely ignored the director’s more interesting relationships with composers as a whole.  The film is littered with famous performers from the era, including Eric Clapton, all the members of The Who, Elton John and Tina Turner, all of whom are used as signifiers of the popular dynamics of the work while ultimately framing them in the tireless operatic form.  This type of casting choice is one of the essential precedents that Tommy sets that will aid in understanding Lisztomania‘s eccentricities.  Many of them are cast for their clearly strong vocal abilities and their images as rock and pop stars adding to the “rock” element of the “rock opera” genre title.

Yet there are others who are there simply for this latter point, for example Keith Moon; the drummer for The Who who is given a vocal role in spite of a genuine lack of singing ability.  This idea that the image and the cultural baggage that a performer brings can add new, metaphysical elements to the film is built upon heavily in Lisztomania and done so in order to add comment on the more classical elements that are present within that film.  Of course, musically, Tommy is polar to the other films discussed so far.  Performances of the songs and music are often a hyper-reality version of the musical montages of the previous films.  By setting up a world that automatically seems illogical, the more surreal montages seem far more normal and less removed than when they appeared in films such as The Music Lovers or Mahler.  The narrative reality of the film is one that has no real barriers and has no loyalties necessary to stick with unlike those that a biographical film must ultimately endeavour to abide by.

This is perhaps the final, defining point that segues into analysis of Lisztomania.  The narrative implausibility, coupled with the cultural redefining of popular music reception seems entirely reasonable in a film that has no historical ties.  Tommy could do just about anything aesthetically as this is, from the very start of the film, shown to be garish vision of fictional world with few groundings in the reality it occasionally references (Britain between 1945 and 1975).  With all of this freedom – a freedom unthinkable even in the most absurd elements of musical films from Russell’s transitional period – could they potentially be transferred, thematically and aesthetically into a classical setting?  With Lisztomania, Russell proves that he has the audacity to at least try this and presents an aesthetic evolution away from Tommy towards a historical reality that, in the context of this essay, is the most distorted by the Russell prism.

Part 8.

Adam Scovell


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