Presented by Huw Wheldon, Elgar takes a biographical look at the life of the composer (whose most famous work, 'Land Of Hope And Glory', he grew to hate) was shot using dramatic reconstructions of events in his life - a groundbreaking approach to documentary film making in the 1960s. There were a number of rules that Russell had to adhere to by taking this approach. There could be no close-ups of the actors, and the actors could not speak. Rather than limiting the film's effectiveness these two stipulations and especially the latter help to create a striking documentary where Elgar's music is used to tell his story alongside a minimal commentary by Wheldon.
Elgar's story, from his lower middle class origins as the son of a tradesman to the height of his popularity and subsequent decline, is shown though the music he wrote by placing his compositions into a social and historical context. Through the dramatisation the small incidents garnered from his memoirs, letters and biographies, Russell has created a wonderfully personal look at Elgar's life. It may not be entirely accurate, though, as in the DVD sleeve notes and his commentary with Ken Russell, Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy, nitpicks his way through some of the film's finer points: Elgar never rode a horse as a child, frolicked in the woods with his wife or asked his wife to draw by hand all his music paper. To which Ken Russell replies "How do you know? He might have done!"
Shot in crisp black and white on location in 'Elgar country' in Malvern and Worcester, this film may offer a romanticised look at Elgar's life but it remains a satisfying film which deserves its place in the BFI's growing video library of key TV programmes preserved in the National Film and Television Archive. Russell's Delius - Song Of Summer is also available.
Also on the DVD is some rare archive footage of Elgar attending the Three Choirs Festival in the late 1920s, early 1930s, and newsreel of a live recording of Land Of Hope And Glory, which celebrated the opening of Abbey Road Studios in 1931. These 15 minutes of additional items are more of interest to Elgar fans than those of Ken Russell.
The film's entertaining and educational commentary takes the form of an interview between Michael Kennedy and Ken Russell and sheds light on the nuts and bolts of the making of this documentary, further illumination on Elgar's life, Russell's passion for classical music and his plans for future films - if he were to get funding!