Elgar (1962)

Elgar (1962), written and directed by Ken Russell.

For Ken Russell (1927-2011).

One of his earliest programs, made for TV and only 54m long, the first of his long running "lives of the composers and artists" series. It's a dramatized documentary, fairly straightforward but a novel approach at the time. No speaking parts, just a narrator, and the characters are portrayed as real people rather than dignified historical personages.

It helps if you enjoy his music. I've always been fascinated by those couple of decades just before WW1, when in some ways western civilization seemed to peak. Elgar's music ("wonderful in its heroic melancholy" --Yeats) is essential background to the era.

Born in modest circumstances with no formal music education or any university, he always wanted to compose. He was fortunate in his wife, who was both loving and motivating. Disinherited by her family because he was a tradesman's son and a Roman Catholic, they struggled in poverty for many years and went without a fire for a whole year once. He composed in the open air and wrote it down when he got home on paper hand-ruled by his wife because they couldn't afford anything else.

Finally he was recognized first in Germany (for The Dream of Gerontius) and then in Britain (for Enigma Variations), leading to great fame and fortune. He continued to have money worries and, public tastes changing, outlived his popularity, not that he much cared by then.

This is Russell's least eccentric bio-pic and is extraordinarily moving. You see little motifs he reused several times thereafter: the melancholy music room, for example. It's one of the best hours of television I can remember.