Film

Ken Russell's 'The Boy Friend' Razzle-Dazzles 'em

Russell loves the homely spit-and-bailing-wire reality as much as the polished eye-popping fantasy of theatre.


The Boy Friend

Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Twiggy, Christopher Gable
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1971
DVD Release date: 2017-02-21

Written, produced and directed by Ken Russell, The Boy Friend isn't merely one of his most exuberant films, which is already saying plenty, but it's his happiest and most joyful.

Russell began with a solid structure provided by Sandy Wilson's hit stage musical of the '50s, itself a self-conscious pastiche of '20s musicals. The original West End production became one of England's longest-running shows, while the Broadway version introduced Julie Andrews to America. The year before this film was made, a Broadway revival starred Judy Carne and Sandy Duncan. It was part of a schizophrenic wave of '20s nostalgia that was hitting the culture with such items as the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Andrews) and the 1971 Broadway revival of No No Nanette at the same time that taboo-breaking projects explored contemporary themes.

Russell presents the show as a cheap production in a run-down, poorly attended seaside theatre, although even Tony Walton's tattiest set designs look improbably spectacular, not to mention Shirley Russell's costumes, which dress women as dice and lanky Tommy Tune at one point as a skyscraper.

The hoary clichés of the understudy (Twiggy) who goes on in place of the broken-legged star (uncredited Glenda Jackson) and the various backstage romantic mix-ups are handled as briskly and winkingly as possible, and indeed everyone gives elaborately theatrical winks to the big Hollywood director (Vladek Sheybal) who comes to see the show as a possible inspiration for one of his Busby Berkeley-esque movies. Thus, Russell injects nods to everything from 42nd Street (1933) to Singin' in the Rain (1952). The latter is mentioned by name, and Russell interpolates two of its recycled songs, "You Are My Lucky Star" and "All I Do Is Dream of You", two actual '20s ditties.

As a lover of creativity and fantasy, Russell lavishes details of the production's mistakes and shortcomings, presenting these flaws as lovingly as the increasingly elaborate and surreal numbers that mix what's happening on stage with how various characters imagine them to be, until it's impossible to separate the levels of reality. Numbers even occur backstage where the audience can't see them. The key to Russell's attitude is that even though the whole thing is a send-up, he loves the homely spit-and-bailing-wire reality just as much as the perfectly polished eye-popping fantasy, for one always contains the other. You just have to be willing to see it.

Christopher Gable plays the pretty co-star mooned over by our heroine while Murray Melvin plays another actor mooning over her from the sidelines. Max Adrian is the impresario, Antonia Ellis the bitchy rival, and Bryan Pringle and Moyra Fraser the older acting couple with their own problems. This is the second of only three films for stage legend Tune, previously in Hello Dolly (1969); he and Twiggy reunited in the Broadway hit My One and Only (1983).

Russell's output has commonly been criticized for excess and unevenness, which he didn't think were flaws. This film is among his most consistent, although MGM cut 25 minutes from its original release. What's now on a Warner Archive Blu-ray, upgrading their old on-demand disc, is the full 136-minute version with intermission, and it looks glorious. The non-glorious extras are the trailer and a contemporary promotional short that interviews Russell and Twiggy.

9
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.