The altered states of Ken Russell

Years ago, when I interviewed make-up master Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist), he had momentarily forgotten the name of a director he worked with, and affectionately remembered him as “the madman from England.”

I immediately knew who he was referring to. “Ken Russell!” I said, and Russell was indeed considered by many, if not most, to be completely mad, and watching his movies, it’s not a hard conclusion to draw. By the way, the Russell film Smith did make-up effects for, Altered States, may be the closest thing to a true acid trip you can see on film.

With Russell’s recent passing at the age of 84, he’s primarily being remembered for his music biopics, and for the controversies surrounding his films. His 1971 film The Devils, is still a hot potato to this day.

It still hasn’t come out on DVD, and his 1984 film Crimes of Passion also raised a lot of ire when it had to be cut for an R. (Siskel and Ebert made a strong case for the X rated version, arguing that the cuts hurt the film). But the Russell film that blew my mind at an impressionable young age was his 1975 adaptation of The Who’s Tommy.

It may sound like a cliché, but seeing Tommy when I was eleven or twelve was like a door opening, and suddenly seeing movies in a whole new way. I had never seen a “rock opera” before, and had never experienced a story where there was no dialogue, everything was sung.

And Russell’s interpretation of The Who’s masterpiece was so out there, like nothing I’d ever experienced. Just check out Elton John in those enormous boots as the Pinball Wizard, Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, or Keith Moon as the hilariously sleazy Uncle Ernie. This was before we had MTV in the house, and it was a whole new world to me where music insanely came to life like I’d never seen before.


Russell’s obit from the Associated Press states that his movies “often tested the patience of audiences and critics,” and he was certainly a filmmaker that polarized people. (He was once quoted in Vanity Fair saying a good review would probably give him a heart attack.) 

The responses on Facebook to this? “I’m still trying to figure out Altered States,” writes one. The term “visionary” also came up several times, and Altered States similarly blew the mind of another viewer. 

Although not in the same league as Stanley Kubrick, Russell’s work definitely had a similar ability to burn images into your brain that you never forget. As one Facebook fan wrote, here’s hoping his work “will inspire the next generation of directors to push what we think we know about making films.”