No filmmaker has had as longstanding impact on or dedication to the biopic (or movie biography) quite like Ken Russell, the most audacious of the wave of British directors who became international mavericks starting in the 1960s. Russell’s strong visual sensibilities and keen ear for music made for a potent combination when he began directing classical music composer biographies for the U.K. anthologized television series, Monitor, with efforts like Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964) and The Debussy Film (1965).
Foreshadowing the revolution of music videos, his films reveled in pure sensory expression as much as biographical information, while creating a portrait of these composers far removed from what audiences had experienced from Hollywood with efforts like The Great Waltz (1938). His big screen film career finally took off in the late ‘60s with his second and third features, Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Women in Love (1969), but Russell continued to explore his beloved composers on TV for another anthology series, Omnibus, with the entries “Song of Summer” (1968) and the most controversial of them all by far, “Dance of the Seven Veils” (1970), which remained banned from public exhibition for 50 years.
Only slightly less scandalous was Russell’s first bona fide feature about a legendary composer, The Music Lovers (1971), with Richard Chamberlain as a sexually tormented and painfully closeted Tchaikovsky who channels his conflict into powerful musical expression. Russell would go on to make two more composer biopics that would have likely numbered more had the third, Lisztomania (1975), not receiving such a scathing reception from the press and public. The centerpiece of this trilogy is the most restrained, relatively speaking, but no less dazzling: Mahler (1974), with veteran British actor Robert Powell starring as the legendary composer whose career spanned from the late 19th century into the early 20th.
Here we get an impressionistic snapshot of his life and work as he travels by train with his wife, Alma (Georgina Hale), back from a prematurely curtailed concert tour as part of the conducting gigs that provided most of their income. The jolting opening moment of a lakeside cabin suddenly bursting into flames announces from the outset that this is no average movie biography, and Russell more than lives up to it for two hours with a flurry of pop culture references and wickedly outlandish depictions of Mahler’s neuroses, including his feelings about his own Judaism, a sequence with Hale, seen earlier in Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971), delivering a physically intense powerhouse that supplied most of the film’s most memorable stills.
Given a very modest theatrical release including minimal U.S. play from the independent distributor Mayfair Films, Mahler was also Russell’s first film with production company Goodtimes Enterprises, the David Puttnam-Sanford Liberson union that also blessed us with Bugsy Malone (1976) and would also back Lisztomania. Though only a minority of theaters were equipped to showcase it, this also marked Russell’s first real foray into multi-channel sound, boasting an expansive stereo mix that hasn’t always been replicated on home video. The sonic advances in this film paved the way for his next film, Tommy (1975), whose groundbreaking “Quintaphonic Sound” presentation remains an audiophile gold standard. Though it doesn’t enjoy the level of popularity as some of Russell’s incendiary successes, Mahler remains a pivotal evolution in his artistic process and a solid entry point to anyone curious about what makes him such a distinctive talent.