This is a classic documentary, the first of Ken Russell’s BBC films about composers. The scene in the cornfield with the music of Salut d’Amour has stayed with me ever since the original TV transmission forty years ago. Again and again Russell matches image and music to stunning effect, and his love of the music is infectious. As so often with him, scenes of exquisite sensitivity and taste are succeeded by others of plonking over-emphasis, and the constraints of 1962 TV make the film seem dated in places (actors in documentaries were not allowed to speak, let alone romp naked in sex scenes). It should also be noted that a lot has been discovered about Elgar since this was shot – so we don’t hear anything about ‘Windflower’ for example. A huge bonus is the delightfully impromptu commentary in which Russell is interviewed by Michael Kennedy. The opening scene shows young Elgar riding a white pony over the Malvern Hills. When Kennedy points out that Elgar never rode, Russell says ‘Well, somebody rides a white horse in most of my films…’ He remembers Huw Weldon warning ‘not too many crucifixes now, Russell’. And we hear of his plans for a Wagner musical: ‘no singing, just the orchestra and people dancing… on motorcycles’. I could go on quoting… Russell is just as interesting a character as Elgar – someone should make a documentary about him. The extra features include silent film of the Three Choirs Festival showing Elgar and Vaughan Williams, other luminaries of the English music scene and even George Bernard Shaw. The stills gallery has some excellent and evocative shots of the filming, including the whole film crew crammed in the back of a 60s estate car filming the white horse sequence. The whole package is very worthwhile.
This is, in my opinion, one of Ken Russell's best works--it stands on a level with "Song of Summer" (though the latter is a drama about the last years of Frederick Delius based on Eric Fenby's memoir "Delius as I Knew Him", and "Elgar" is a fairly short but superbly done documentary made for the BBC in the early 1960s). A must-have for those who love the music of arguably Britain's greatest composer.
The commentary on this film was written and spoken by Huw Wheldon. Russell was very keen (as later risible efforts demonstrate) to have his characters speaking. Wheldon was dead against this mixing of fact and fiction. It is something that happens so often nowadays that we do not recognize the inherent dishonesty. He allowed long shots and extreme close ups. In fact it is this distance from the protagonist that gives the film its particular quality, its paradoxical intimacy, so that it is first and foremost a portrait of Elgar the music rather than Elgar the man. That probably doesn't appeal to a citizen of the current celebrity culture, but to those interested in music, it does. Russell, once off the leash of Wheldon's belief that duty must be done to the subject, indulged himself and squandered a true talent. It is astonishing that ELGAR holds up so well after so long. This is due to the fact that the star is not the director, but the music.
A famous TV biography which made Ken Russel's name. Beautiful photography and a sympathetic treatment of a moody and complex genius, somewhat on the edge of English musical society, after all he was the Son Of A Tradesman; and a Roman Catholic too. There is some dramatic license, or rather fiction, for example there are no accounts of Elgar ever riding a horse as a boy; a bicycle as an adult, yes. And he wouldn't have had to resort to his wife ruling his manuscript-paper, after all his father sold it in his shop.
I thoroughly enjoy this film and have watched it several times. It is not, however, at all an accurate portrait of Elgar. For example:- as far as anyone knows he never rode a horse. As his father owned a music shop he was able to get as much lined paper as he wanted and the picture of Alice ruling staves on blank paper is a fantasy. Also there is no mention of 'Windflower' or 'Vera'. I could go on, it is an entertaining film but have your salt cellar at hand.
A film which enhances the music. I had the pleasure to run over the Malvern Hills with my young family and husband - it was magic and Kenn Russel has captured this magic through the music. I recommend this CD to schools. Sergine Seaton