Ken Russell, the controversial UK film director behind such movies as Women in Love, Altered States and Tommy, died on Sunday, as a result of a series of strokes. “My father died peacefully, he died with a smile on his face,” said Russell’s son Alex Verney-Elliott, though Russell’s widow Elize called his death “devestating” and “completely unexpected.” Russell was 84.
Though always connected to rock and roll through his controversial, convention-busting artistic approach—his most acclaimed film, Women in Love, broke the taboo of showing male genitals on screen in a mainstream movie in its famous nude wrestling scene—Russell’s most direct ties to the music world were through a couple movies he made in the mid-’70s starring Roger Daltrey, lead singer of legendary rock band The Who.
The first, Tommy, was a musical based on the band’s rock opera of the same name, and also featured such musical icons as Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Elton John in supporting roles. The second, Lisztomania, was about the rock-star-of-his-time classical composer Franz Liszt, and was notable for featuring synthesizer arrangements from Rick Wakeman (of prog-rock greats Yes) on the soundtrack, and for being the first movie to used Dolby Stereo sound, which would soon become the norm for motion pictures and greatly impact music production as well.
Russell’s mid-’70s work can be exceptionally difficult to watch today—scenes like the one in Tommy when Ann-Margaret gets baptized by a shower of baked beans and chocolate, and writhes orgasmically in response, are more than a little chuckle-inducing—but with their loud, garish visuals and progressive, envelope-pushing soundtracks, the two films posited Russell as an important figure in ’70s art-rock. Check out some scenes below (one featuring Ringo Starr!), as well as one of the best rock/pop songs of the past few years, which might not have existed without Russell…