His over-the-top violent and sexual imagery kept him from ever becoming a superstar director, but he had some international success with several films.
Russell's most commercial success came in 1975, when he filmed The Who's Tommy, which began as a two-album recording and which holds the distinction of being the first piece ever to be called a "rock opera". He stuffed the movie with superstars such as Jack Nicholson,Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Elton John, and placed The Who's lead singer Roger Daltry in the title role.
I only saw this film once, rock opera is not my favorite genre, but nobody who saw the movie will ever forget the sight of Ann-Margaret rolling around in baked beans and diuretic-looking chocolate sauce. I forget the deeper meaning of the sequence, but A-M received an Oscar nomination for her efforts (she lost to Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
In the years between his two big successes with Women in Love and Tommy, Russell delivered a musical film based on very unlikely (for him) source material. The Boy Friend was a spoof of the kind of musicals which populated the Broadway stage in the 1920s.
Its first production brought the unknown Julie Andrews to the United States, and a revival years later (starring Laugh-In's Judy Carne) gave Sandy Duncan a big break. How this slight piece of fluff attracted Ken Russell is anybody's guess, but nobody else was breaking down the doors to film the show, so whatever. His adaptation was far from faithful; his Boy Friend centered around a theatre company's attempts to put on a production of The Boy Friend. The leading lady (Glenda Jackson in an uncredited cameo) breaks her leg or something, and the mousy understudy must go on, while a Hollywood talent scout watches.
The film was not much of a success when released in 1971 (everybody blamed the hatchet job which had been done on Ken's original, full-length piece), but it gave 60s supermodel Twiggy her first chance to prove she was more than just a flat chest. She won the Golden Globe, and went on to a Tony-winning career in stage musicals and cabaret.
The Boy Friend and Tommy might have been joined on Ken Russell's resume by Evita, which he hoped to film back in the 80s. He was the only one involved who thought Liza Minnelli should play Eva Peron, and the project fell apart. As for this week's Dance Party, you may have been wishing for something from Tommy, perhaps Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" or Tina Turner's Acid Queen, or even that yucky scene with the baked beans, but no dice.
This week's Dance Party features Twiggy and her leading man from The Boy Friend, Christopher Gable. It's interesting to note that Tommy Tune also appears in this film; he would later costar with Twiggy in My One and Only, and the two would win His-And-Hers Tony Awards.