Directed by: Ken Russell
Starring: Max Adrian, Christopher Gable, Maureen Pryor, David Collings
When it played at the Telluride Film Festival three years ago, Ken Russell’s Song of Summer (1968) garnered a standing ovation for itself and its director. It’s easy to see why. This small-scale biopic (frequently cited by Russell as his personal favorite) about the relationship between English composer Frederick Delius (Max Adrian) and his amanuensis Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable) is one of Russell’s most accessible and moving works.
The film traces Delius’ final years, when the composer was blind and paralyzed (the result of advanced syphilis). Having heard of the older man’s plight, Fenby offers his services to help Delius complete several unfinished works (including the title piece). Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Fenby finds himself at the mercy of a self-absorbed—and very outspoken (“English music will never be any good till they get rid of Jesus”)—tyrant, who demands much and gives little. The intensely Catholic Fenby and the born-again pagan Delius (who encourages his helper to “throw away those Christian blinkers”) make for a poor and very volatile match, but a strange friendship springs up between the two men that will last until Delius’ death in 1934. It’s a richly rewarding work with a quiet intensity that recalls the films of Ingmar Bergman.
The film also provides Russell-regular Max Adrian with the role of a lifetime as the irascible composer, and Adrian plays it for all it’s worth. Though, really, all the performances here are first-rate (even Russell’s comic cameo as a randy priest). As usual Russell does a splendid job of getting to the heart of the music at hand, offering up some of his most remarkable sequences involving matching images and music. It’s a film not to be missed, as is the second Russell film being run the same evening—a very rarely seen film that I won’t reveal the title of, but will say that it’s the polar opposite of Song of Summer in terms of style, and an absolute essential for anyone interested in the director’s work.
Song of Summer and a second Ken Russell film are part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World being presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332