M.I.A.: Ken Russell's Banned Dance Of the Seven Veils

"Omnibus, now, presents a new film by Ken Russell, 'Dance Of the Seven Veils.'  It's been described as a harsh, and at times violent, caricature of the life of the composer Richard Strauss.  This is a personal interpretation by Ken Russell of certain real, and many imaginary, events in the composer's life.  Among them are dramatized sequences about the war and the Nazi persecution of the Jews, which includes scenes of considerable violence and horror."

How about a new M.I.A. post?  It's been ages since I've done one, since I still have such a long list of discs I want to cover on this site.  But I don't want to lose full sight of those films still in desperate need of a disc, any kind of home video disc at all.  I mean, what if there's just a scintilla of a chance somebody in a position to do something about it actually reads one of these dang things?
So here's a juicy one for ya.  A lot of films get called controversial, but this one really was.  I mean, just read that quote above, which was read aloud on air on the 15th February, 1970, before the BBC broadcast, for the first and last time, Ken Russell's Dance Of the Seven Veils.  Right after it aired, the estate of Dance's subject, Richard Strauss, immediately pulled the rights and blocked the film from showing anywhere, ever again.  It was shown to and condemned by British Parliament the next day (you can read Russell talk about it in an interview with Film Comment here).  It was never shown again, (apart, apparently, from a few underground screenings by Ken himself with the music swapped out) until it shown as part of a heavily publicized screening at a Keswick, Cumbria film festival on Saturday 29th February, 2020.

...Although it did manage to leak online in between those two dates, which is why I'm able to write about it and show you screenshots from my homemade DVR today.
Some noteworthy facts about this film: it was Ken Russell's first foray into color (not that you'd know it from my copy!), and his last film for Omnibus, for which he'd made his previous, celebrated documentaries: Dante's Inferno and Delius: Song Of Summer.  They'd also rebroadcast some of his earlier works and, just the year after his departure, made a documentary about Ken called Russell's Progress.  So I guess they were still behind him.  But anyway, more important than the trivia and the controversy is just the fact that it's pretty great.
This is where we really start to dip into Wild Ken Russell.  Yes, it's another documentary about a composer, but this is way more into the Tommy or Lisztomania zone than his old, buttoned up work for Monitor in the 60s.  The opening credits describe the experience we're about to have as "[a] comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949."  If you don't know your classical music, Strauss is best known for "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which became the famous theme of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and also used to memorable effect in Crimes Of Passion).  That and the fact that he worked directly under Goebbels as the president of the Third Reich's musical division in the 1930s.  As you might imagine, Russell had some strong opinions about that ; and while he clearly appreciated the music, this resulting documentary is perhaps the most singular instance of an movie being made as a giant, personal insult from one man to another in cinema history.
So yes, this just under an hour-long doc feature is broken up into seven sequences, each set to a key Strauss composition, with autobiographical narration taken from his own writings.  Each segment serves as a sort of proto-music video for its corresponding piece of music, also parodying the subjects Strauss was writing about and dramatizing the story of his life, all at once, in a sort of chaotic mash that manages to make sense as you watch it unfold.  And none of its flattering.  Strauss's ubermensch is a bumbling fool, and he whines in the face of his responsibilities to stand up to the Nazis, "a hero's life is not a happy one," he bemoans in the guise of a collapsed Don Quixote.  "I was constantly under attack.  I was even attacked for writing a symphony about myself.  I can't see why!  Aren't I just as important as Alexander the Great or Napoleon?"
There's no point in really analyzing the picture or audio quality of my little DVR, because it's just a rip of something I found online many years ago.  Searching around, it still seems to be the best and only option available (the current version on Youtube is split into 10-minute chunks and even more red, but it seems to be using the same, time-coded source).  But when the film screened in 2020, press photos were circulated, which gives us an idea of how much better this film could and should look. Although these are publicity photos taken on location, not proper screenshots; so bear in mind even a fancy 4k restoration wouldn't look this good, or be in that aspect ratio.  But still, it gives you a strong idea of the bootleg's shortcomings and how badly the film is in need of decent treatment.
So it sure would be swell if the BBC could restore and release this on DVD and blu.  The Keswick film festival programmer told the BBC in 2020 that, "I have been tracking dates when the ban could be lifted.  Even after all this time, cutting through the legal red tape has been a challenge."  So I can appreciate it might not be the easiest task, but hopefully now that the copyright ban has expired, it's possible.  It would absolutely be worth the undertaking.  This is a fascinating, and thoroughly entertaining, artistic statement that definitely deserves to be seen today.  In fact, there's still a slew of unreleased Ken Russell works as yet unreleased on home video... one could compile an excellent collection if one possessed the proper enthusiasm.

And, of course, I can't sign off on a post like this without a reminder that it's a crime how Warner Bros is suppressing The Devils, and we need them to finally do it justice today!

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