Ken Russell's Special Composer Commentaries: Elgar and Delius (US/UK Comparisons)

In 2008, Warner Bros and the BBC teamed up to release a nice collection of six early, black and white Ken Russell films called, simply enough, Ken Russell At the BBC. Releases like this really make you think Warner Bros is a cool company that must really respect the work of the talented Russell, but then you look at how they've spent decades going to great lengths to stymie an uncut release of The Devils, and then you start thinking "why don't these jerks go out of business already so somebody can rescue it?"  (sigh)  Anyway, this is a pretty terrific 3-disc set featuring mostly previously unreleased films. Two of them actually had been released before, in 2002 from the BFI; and those discs had unique extras not carried over to the Warner set.  So let's dig in.

Ken Russell started out making documentaries for the BBC, mostly on composers and other great artists.  He always wanted to push the envelope of the BBC's then strict guidelines of what could and couldn't constitute a proper documentary film. He wanted to include actors and scenes that were more akin to drama, essentially early examples of the now standard documentary tool of recreation, and as he slowly pushed the envelope over the years, his films gradually transformed from the strictest of documentaries fully across the line biographical dramas that we wouldn't even classify as documentary today. ...And somehow that lead to The Fall Of the Louse Of Usher. So, anyway, the films in this set pick up at 1962, where the first film is described as "partially dramatized," to 1968, a non-documentary biography.

Specifically, the films in this set are: Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always On a Sunday, Isadora: the Biggest Dance In the World, Dante's Inferno and Song of Summer. It also has a couple nice extras: Ken Russell In Conversation, a new full half-hour sit down conversation with the director about his early works, and Late Night Line-Up: Russell At Work, an excellent vintage documentary that also runs a half an hour and shows Russell creating some of his early films, which some fans might treasure more than some of the Russell films themselves. Plus, there are the typical forced trailers for Jeckyl, Sense & Sensibility, a joint trailer for four of BBC classic adaptations and one of those claymation BBC commercials at the start. Despite everything being in English, the entire set also has optional subtitles, even the extras. Overall, this is a pretty great set, full of exclusive films and features not available anywhere else, which I'd certainly highly recommend. But I want to take a look specifically at Elgar and Song Of Summer (released under the title Delius in the UK), the two films which had already issued by the BFI.
1962's Elgar is the drier of the two films, as it features no dialogue save for narration. Being the earliest film in the set, it sticks the closest to the rules of documentary, using a lot of archival footage and photographs, but combining those with silent, romanticized scenes of Edward Elgar's life. fans used to Altered States and Tommy may be disappointed in this venture even if they went in already knowing that this was going to be a straight-forward historical documentary. But I still found it to be a sensitive, well made film that draws you into the composer's life over a brisk 56 minute running time.
NTSC BBC on top; PAL BFI below.
The two discs share essentially the same full-frame transfer (the proper AR, considering this was made for 60s TV), though the BFI's image is a bit darker, and the BBC has a little more information along the top and less along the bottom. It's not a strong enough to really declare one better than the other, it's just a noticeable but minor distinction. A quality that is strong enough to make one decidedly superior and preferable to the other, though, is the ghosting effect you can see in the second pair of shots. The BBC disc, obviously taken from a PAL source, has this effect in intermittent frames throughout the film, giving it a juttery look in motion, especially when there's a lot of movement on screen. So that makes the BFI the preferable viewing experience.

And more than that, BFI's DVD edition of Elgar is a pretty loaded special edition. Most notably, it features an audio commentary by Ken Russell! It also features a vintage silent film of Elgar conducting his piece, Land Of Hope and Glory, which features an introduction and commentary by Michael Kennedy, who also moderated the audio commentary. And the music has been synced up, so when the film gets to the actual song, you can hear it. Kennedy comes back once more to introduce and narrate another silent film of footage of Elgar at the Three Choirs Festival. There's also a small stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos of Russell filming Elgar. And like the BBC disc, the film is presented with optional English subtitles... and even the commentary track.
Song Of Summer, now, is more of a full-blown dramatic movie, with dialogue scenes and no more stock footage or photos. There is still some narration, by the actor playing Eric Fenby on-screen, giving you the experience that Fenby is guiding you through his experiences as you follow the story. Based on Fenby's book Delius As I Knew Him, we meet Delius through Denby and only get to know him for the five year span that Delius lived with him and his wife. Delius was blind and relied on Fenby to assist him. This is much more of a dramatic and compelling film that also has more of a Russell feel to it (although you can also sense him in the romanticism of Elgar) that will probably appeal to a broader selection of Ken Russell fans.
NTSC BBC on top; PAL BFI below.
The differences in transfer are basically the same as last time, with BFI's image being a bit brighter and showing more info along the top but less along the bottom. This time there's a bit of a colorization difference, too, with the BBC being pure black and white, and the BFI disc have slight shifts in color tones. Their shot of the pair of them at the piano, as you can see, looks downright sepia in comparison. And unfortunately, yes, the NTSC/PAL conversion issue also continues, with the BBC's ghosting frames juttering along.

Now, BFI's Delius isn't quite as special as Elgar, but it has the most important thing - another Ken Russell commentary. The commentary is a lot of fun, too, with Russell breaking off into him impression of a cantankerous old Delius. Both commentaries are a great blend of entertaining and informative. Indeed, if you've never heard any, Russell typically does some of the best audio commentaries out there. There's not much else on this disc, we've even lost the optional subtitles, but for my money, the commentary's more than enough.

I still absolutely recommend the BBC set, as it has the four unreleased films and the pair of excellent features. But BFI's discs of the two films they did put out are roundly superior. And while I'd still say the transfer might be "close enough" for all but the more hardcore viewers seriously concerned with image quality, the pair of excellent audio commentaries on the BFI discs make me feel it's really worth the double-dips and getting both editions. That the have the better transfer, then, is just an extra bonus for fans who take the plunge.

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