The famously provocative and controversial British filmmaker, who evidently enjoys airing the dirty laundry of legendary artistic icons, has published new books exploring the seedier sides of Brahms, Beethoven, Elgar and (the syphilitic) Delius. In an article in the London Times last week, Russell describes how he explores these composers' salacious desires in four "novel-biographies" (his term) released in two separate volumes: Beethoven (Confidential) & Brahms Gets Laid, and Elgar: The Erotic Variations & Delius: A Moment with Venus.
He writes, "My coverage of the subjects is provocative, but thoroughly researched, even so. Sex-mad? Maybe. Obsessed? With music, yes. [...] Would this be a good place to mention that I am compelled to investigate the places where a powerful life force smashes headlong into cultural taboos and fashions? No? All right, never mind. Read my books under the covers, flashlight at the ready. But if they're not just about the sex lives of these beloved composers, don't say I didn't warn you."
Russell was born in Southampton, England, in 1927. He began his career as a photographer, then became a television director for the BBC, making programs on music, including studies of Delius, Debussy, Elgar and Strauss.
His television films became increasingly flamboyant and outrageous: The Debussy Films (1965), for example, opens with a scene in which a woman is shot full of arrows (a reference to the composer's The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian), while Dance of the Seven Veils (1970) caused such outrage that it prompted a debate in the British Parliament. The Strauss family withdrew all music rights and imposed a ban on the film.
Among his many feature films are The Music Lovers (1970), a biopic of Tchaikovsky with music conducted by Andr_ Previn, and Lisztomania (1975), a fantasy about the composer and piano virtuoso starring Roger Daltrey of The Who.
Russell had an extraordinary run of commercial success in the early 1970s, beginning with Women in Love (1969) an adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence novel which garnered Glenda Jackson her first Academy Award. He made a star-studded film version of The Who's rock opera Tommy (1974); his Altered States (1980) featured a score by John Corigliano which was nominated for an Academy Award. Controversy over perceived excesses in his films caused studio work to dry up; his later screen work has either been self-financed or made for and funded by television networks.
Earlier this year, the now-79-year-old Russell briefly participated in the British "reality" television show Celebrity Big Brother.
Russell has also worked as an opera director: his productions include The Rake's Progress in Florence (1982), La Bohme in Macerata (1984), Faust and L'italiana in Algeri in Geneva (1984), and Boito's Mefistofele in Genoa (1987).
His notorious staging of Madama Butterfly at the 1983 Spoleto Festival U.S.A. protrayed Cio-Cio-San as a prostitute in a sleazy brothel under the control of Goro, a pimp. Donal Henahan, reviewing the production for The New York Times, wrote that "Perhaps because he lacked Ken Russell's feverish imagination, Puccini never wrote an opera called The Best Little Whorehouse in Nagasaki."