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A view on Blu-ray by Gary W. Tooze

The Ken Russell Collection: The Great Composers [Blu-ray]


Elgar (1962)

The Debussy Film (1965)

Song of Summer (1968)




Review by Gary Tooze



Theatrical: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Video: BFI Video



Region: 'B' (as verified by the Oppo Blu-ray player)

Runtimes: 0:54:50.000  / 1:22:14.000 / 1:13:35.600 

Disc Size: 46,602,321,236 bytes

Elgar Size: 11,250,733,632 bytes

The Debussy Film Size: 16,877,608,320 bytes

Song of Summer Size: 15,113,512,320 bytes

Video Bitrates: 24.00 Mbps

Chapters: 6, 8 and 8

Case: Transparent Blu-ray case

Release date: March 28th, 2016



Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Resolution: 1080i / 25 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video



LPCM Audio English 1536 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 1536 kbps / 16-bit

Dolby Digital Audio English 320 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 320 kbps



English (SDH), none



Michael Bradsell Interview (2015, 10:04): the film editor talks about working with Ken Russell
Land of Hope and Glory (1931, 3:20): footage of Sir Edward Elgar conducting the LSO at the opening of the new HMV Studios (now Abbey Road Studios)
Elgar and the Three Choirs Festival (Harold Brooke, 1929-1932, 9:19): amateur footage of Elgar at home and at the Three Choirs Festival
Ken Russell and Michael Kennedy audio commentary for Elgar (2002)
Newly commissioned commentary by Kevin Flanagan for The Debussy Film
Ken Russell audio commentary for Song of Summer (2002)
Illustrated booklet featuring new essays by Kevin Flanagan, John Hill, John C Tibbetts, Paul Sutton and Michael Brooke, and full credits
DVD (Dual-Format)






The Debussy Film



Song of Summer



Description: A Dual Format Edition collection bringing together the career defining work of Ken Russell at the BBC. Russell's work during the sixties for award-winning arts documentary series Monitor and Omnibus were critically-acclaimed and often seen as a high point in his filmmaking.

The first of the three films, Elgar (1962), portrays in vigorous style the life of the English composer Sir Edward Elgar, with Huw Wheldon narrating his life story over beautiful mountain scenery. The Debussy Film (1965), Russell's penultimate film for Monitor was an ambitious work about the composer's life, written by Melvyn Bragg and starring Oliver Reed as Claude Debussy. Song of Summer (1968) is generally regarded (not least by its director) as Russell's best television film with many critics citing it as his finest work in any medium. The story traces Eric Fenby and is based on his memoirs of trying to help the blind and paralysed composer Frederick Delius.

The films in this collection have been remastered to High Definition, and are presented on Blu-ray for the very first time.





The Film:

Elgar was made under a series of Wheldon-imposed restrictions, notably a ban on dramatisations of the lives of real people. Russell agreed a compromise: although Elgar and his contemporaries would be portrayed by actors, they would never speak and would mostly be filmed in long shot. Russell exploited these limitations brilliantly, the absence of dialogue letting him fill the soundtrack with almost wall-to-wall Elgar, including pieces that had rarely been heard since their composition. Wheldon himself contributed the relatively sparse narration, but the film's true eloquence comes from the fusion of Elgar's music and Russell's images.

Given the film's lowly origins, its visual fluidity is remarkable: this couldn't be further removed from a dry historical lecture. When Russell's camera isn't swooping and gliding over Elgar's beloved Malvern Hills, it's fixating on strangely arresting shots: the sequence covering Lady Elgar's death begins with tendrils of mist snaking through a silver birch wood, continues with a dark room full of mysteriously shrouded furniture and ends with the bereaved Elgar's new and obsessive interest in microscopic natural phenomena. Most television dates rapidly, but over forty years on, Elgar is still startlingly fresh and inventive. Even the black-and-white photography looks like a deliberate artistic choice as opposed to a then-universal convention.

Excerpt from BFI ScreenOnline located HERE


The Debussy Film
The film operates on, and constantly switches between, three levels. First, there's the dramatised life story of Debussy and his stormy relationships with lovers, friends, colleagues and patrons. Then, there are visualisations of his music, along similar lines to those in Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) and Béla Bartók (BBC, tx. 24/5/1964), beginning with a startling sequence in which a young woman, representing Saint Sebastian, is shot at point-blank range with arrows. And finally, there's the film within The Debussy Film, as an ambitious director attempts to capture the complexities of his subject while negotiating his actors' own turbulent relationships.

Although this treatment might seem gimmicky, it represents the logical culmination of Russell's Monitor output. In constantly pushing at the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for a BBC documentary, he had to spend much time thinking about what he was attempting, not least in order to justify it to his boss Huw Wheldon, a stickler for factual accuracy. His director frequently voices these dilemmas, musing about how to convey particular ideas on film, incorporate additional material without unbalancing the narrative, or simply to vouch for the accuracy of individual scenes. Russell confirmed that the line "They did play with balloons - I checked" was a cheeky dig at Wheldon.

Excerpt from BFI ScreenOnline located HERE

Song of Summer
Generally regarded (not least by its director) as Ken Russell's best television film, with many critics citing it as his finest work in any medium, Song of Summer (BBC, tx. 15/9/1968) benefits from an unusually strong story that provides the kind of firm dramatic anchor that Russell's other composer biopics generally lack. It was based on Eric Fenby's memoir Delius As I Knew Him, an autobiographical account of his painstaking efforts helping the blind, paralysed composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) extract his last works from his head onto manuscript.

Fenby co-wrote the script with Russell, and is played on screen by former Royal Ballet star Christopher Gable. Despite his lack of acting experience, Gable gives a remarkably sympathetic performance as the shy, awkward young Yorkshireman, visiting Delius (a virtuoso, arguably career-best performance from Max Adrian) on his own initiative but frequently wondering whether he's up to the job: though a trained musician, he is completely baffled by Delius' dictation, and finds it equally hard to grasp his musical ideas.

Excerpt from BFI ScreenOnline located HERE


Image :    NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.

The Ken Russell Collection: The Great Composers is simultaneously released on Blu-ray from BFI along with The Ken Russell Collection: The Great Passions.  Both are dual-layered with three films from his award-winning arts documentary series Monitor and Omnibus works in the 60's produced by the BBC. These are rare and unique and it was a wonderful idea to bring them to the higher resolution since almost exclusively viewed on small television tubes 50-years hence. The Great Composers set comprises Monitor's Elgar from 1962 (also reviewed on out-of-print DVD HERE), The Debussy Film (1965) and Monitor's Song of Summer: Frederick Delius from 1968. Each in black and white and 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From original source these are all 1080i and 25 fps (PAL) which is how they would have been viewed in their broadcast premieres. Bitrates are supportive at 24 mbps and the image is a bit superior to the, slightly older The Great Passions set. It is a shade cleaner and crisper - also very watchable. Hopefully the Blu-ray captures should give you a reasonable idea of how they might look on your home theatre system. I was quite pleased with this appearance.











The Debussy Film










Song of Summer









Audio :

BFI use a linear PCM mono tracks (16-bit) for all 3 films. They are filled with sweeping classical scores from the respective bio'ed composers featured in the set. With an exception - Song of Summer has Delius music frequently (we also briefly hear Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River" in one spot) but, while I reviewed the, now OOP, DVD HERE some 15-years ago I didn't recall in the film's opening or that there was a silent era comedy playing but understand now that the copyright permission couldn't be obtained and that scene was cut from the SD release but the Blu-ray shows Fenby improvising on an organ for the theatre patrons. The audio is quite impressive in these films sounds regal and majestic at times - definitely helping carry the narrative. There are optional English (SDH) subtitles and my Oppo has identified it as being a region 'B'-locked.


Extras :

Like The Great Passions - this package also has many supplements including commentaries for each film (Ken Russell and Michael Kennedy for Elgar and Russell for Song of Summer - both from 2002 - and a delightful newly commissioned commentary by Kevin Flanagan for The Debussy Film) plus another new (2015) 10-minute interview with Michael Bradsell; the film editor talks about working with Ken Russell. We get a short piece of footage from 1931 of Sir Edward Elgar conducting the LSO at the opening of the new HMV Studios (now Abbey Road Studios), as well as amateur footage of Elgar at home and at the Three Choirs Festival. There is an Illustrated booklet featuring new essays by Kevin Flanagan, John Hill, John C Tibbetts, Paul Sutton and Michael Brooke, and full credits and the release is dual-format with a DVD included.



The Ken Russell Collections: are superb - a brilliant idea by the BFI. These are can really represent a landmark in exposing less-exposed culture/art with Russell's unique explorations they are so dissimilar to mainstream  - and we, again, get three of them on one Blu-ray! The a/v quality exceeds The Great Passions set (although similar era video but the music, in lossless, is an integral part of these three productions) and we also get immense value in the extras as well as, simply getting access to the films in HD (which is huge, IMO). I thoroughly enjoyed watching these again - such fascinating beauty and higher resolution helps impact you on a deeper level. Of the two Ken Russell Collections - I lean to this a bit more but both are very strongly recommended!  

Gary Tooze

March 12th, 2016



About the Reviewer: Hello, fellow Beavers! I have been interested in film since I viewed a Chaplin festival on PBS when I was around 9 years old. I credit DVD with expanding my horizons to fill an almost ravenous desire to seek out new film experiences. I currently own approximately 9500 DVDs and have reviewed over 5000 myself. I appreciate my discussion Listserv for furthering my film education and inspiring me to continue running DVDBeaver. Plus a healthy thanks to those who donate and use our Amazon links.

Although I never wanted to become one of those guys who focused 'too much' on image and sound quality - I find HD is swiftly pushing me in that direction.

Gary's Home Theatre:

60-Inch Class (59.58” Diagonal) 1080p Pioneer KURO Plasma Flat Panel HDTV PDP6020-FD

Oppo Digital BDP-83 Universal Region FREE Blu-ray/SACD Player
Momitsu - BDP-899 Region FREE Blu-ray player
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Gary W. Tooze






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