Before he became known as the enfant terrible of British cinema, director Ken Russell produced innovative work for the BBC. Song of Summer, a biography of Frederick Delius based on the memoirs of his amanuensis, Eric Fenby, is probably the most famous of Russell’s films from that period. Uneven, not quite as engaging as a full throttle fictionalization, but also not as staid as the average BBC documentary, it feels as if it is about to burst into one of Russell’s more flamboyant gestures, but stops just short.
Composer biopics are not particularly well regarded, for the good reason that most of them (including Russell’s other forays in the genre) founder in the attempt to explain music’s emotional appeal by treating it as if every bar illustrated an incident in the composer’s life. Song of Summer largely avoids that trap because Delius’s music (as shown in the film) was primarily inspired by nature, leading to pictorial rather than dramatic “explanations” for his output.
Drama is restricted largely to Delius (Max Adrian) dictating his music to Fenby (Christopher Gable). So, instead of just being plastered on the soundtrack, we see and hear the music taking shape. That Delius is both blind and crippled works to the film’s advantage because all concerned must concentrate on the music, not on the potential soap opera surrounding its composition.
There are, nonetheless, hints of the kind of gratuitous, seamy material that Russell would foreground in his later biographical films. For example, Fenby, a devout Catholic, catches the local priest (Russell himself) in flagrante delicto with one of his parishioners with no apparent relevance to Delius’s story. A neighbor tells Fenby about the licentious past of the composer and his wife Jelka (Maureen Pryor) to no obvious purpose. And the final revelation that Delius’s condition results from syphilis comes out of nowhere and seems included primarily to shock.
There are also some cinematic hi-jinks. When Percy Grainger (David Collings) suddenly appears on the scene, for example, he doesn’t just arrive. He jumps out of the background, swoops over Delius like a bat, throws a ball over the house, then runs to catch it on the other side. Or, after failing disastrously to meet Delius’s expectations, Fenby runs outside, through the forest to nearby railroad tracks, and nearly gets run over by a train in so exaggerated an externalization of his humiliation that it feels more exhausting than expressive.
In his repeated grappling with the tough subject of artistic creation, Russell remained unsentimental about his subjects’ human frailties. Delius is distinctly unattractive, but unlike in his later work, Russell does not wallow in the bad behavior. The results in Song of Summer do not allow Russell the sensualist to express himself fully (he is one of those directors who pretty much requires color cinematography), but they offer a glimpse into what creativity involves without denying its sordid underside.