Ken Russell’s Valentino Biopic Swoops in on Seductive BFI Blu-ray/DVD Set

by Jade Evans

Giveaway: Two BFI Blu-ray/DVD Sets of Ken Russell’s Valentino Biopic to Be Won!

  • Maverick British director Ken Russel’s lavish biopic of silent film idol Rudolph Valentino arrives in vivid splendour on an extras-stacked Blu-ray/DVD package
  • Jade Evans gives it the once-over…
Rudolf Nuryev in Ken Russell's Valentino (1977)

Rudolf Nuryev in Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977)

Charming, romantic, seductive, legendary – a few words that describe arguably the first silent movie superstar, Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Valentino. Whilst he only lived for a too-short 31 years, he is one of the most memorable stars of the silver screen. In 1977, director Ken Russell, best known for his controversial classics Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), and his hit British classic Tommy (1975), directed the iconic biopic, Valentino (1977). Following Rudy’s premature death in 1926, his talent and beauty were immortalised, and he became the subject of gossip by journalists and biographers who claimed to know the real Rudy. This is the basis of Ken Russell’s biopic, as he attempts to examine the relationship between the man and the myth in this recently restored and re-released BFI dual format Blu-ray/DVD edition.

Michelle Phillips and Rudolf Nuryev in Ken Russell's Valentino (1977), running

Michelle Phillips and Rudolf Nuryev in Valentino (1977)

Valentino begins with flashing newspaper headlines announcing Rudy’s death, intercut with an array of archival footage from the monumental funeral of Rudy, one which had tens of thousands of distraught fans in attendance, weeping as his coffin was carted through the streets. A dissolving shot of Rudolf Nureyev – who, like Rudy, also died relatively young – as the silent movie star laying in his casket transitions from black and white into colour, signifying the difference between real, archival footage and a fantastical fiction created by Russell. The audience is encouraged to understand Russell’s examination of the relationship between image and reality, a theme present in many of his films. Valentino turns its focus onto Rudy’s journey from an Italian immigrant in New York through to his rise to fame as an international superstar, engaging in risqué relationships and conflicts within the studios along the way.

Rudolf Nuryev and Michelle Phillips in Ken Russell's Valentino (1977), dancing

Rudolf Nuryev and Michelle Phillips in Valentino (1977)

Adored and desired by his fans, Russell’s biopic places Rudy as a product of the studio star system, a means of them making a profit from his star status, as well as placing him as a subject of criticism and intrusive examinations into his relationships and sexuality by the press. Plot-wise, Valentino is not a factual biopic in the slightest; it was loosely based on a salacious biography that adamantly claimed Rudy was homosexual, despite little evidence to support it. References are repeatedly made to this within the film, and whilst it is unlikely to be true, it is a significant commentary on Rudy’s star persona, part of which has propelled him to be a gay icon. There are in fact very few factual biographies or biopics on Rudy, but for the fan wanting to find out more, I suggest Affairs Valentino (2015) by Evelyn Zumaya as a scholarly and well-researched, as well as factual, account of his life. Russell stated, regarding the fictional quality of his biopic, “I can be as inaccurate as I want to […] My films are novels, based on a person’s life, and a novel has a point of view. I’m not interested in making documentaries.” Valentino is a work of fiction, but it also appears to be a homage to a golden era of filmmaking for Russell: that of the silent film era.

Russell was born in 1927, the year following Rudy’s death, and he always remained a firm fan of the 1920s. His love of the era undoubtedly had an impact on his fantastic, stylish sets, costumes, props, as well as the romanticised performances of the film. Valentino is a memory of a legend, a star of Russell’s childhood and, like all memories, they become warped over the years. It does not focus so much on Rudy, the man behind the mask, but examines him in the context of performing within his films. Therefore, Valentino is a stage upon which Russell’s memories of an icon are acted out. Starring as the iconic Rudolph Valentino, Nureyev does a fantastic job of performing Russell’s gossip-saturated depiction of Rudy within his biopic. However, when comparing him to Rudolph Valentino himself, his performance is a pale imitation which distracts fans, unable to seduce the audience with a gaze, or the turn of a head, as Rudy had been so apt at doing. As a fictional character within the film however, Nureyev’s performance, particularly his dance scenes, are both memorable, and a display of his capabilities as an actor. It is not an easy feat after all, to capture the spirit of a legend who was deemed to be human perfection personified.

Rudolf Nuryev and Felicity Kendal in Ken Russell's Valentino (1977)

Rudolf Nuryev and Felicity Kendal in Valentino (1977)

The BFI’s release of Valentino showcases a stunning restoration of the film in high definition. The images are crisp and bright, bringing to life the often striking lighting and intoxicating colour photography. The booklet included with this release features a wide range of essays on Ken Russell, from his early filmmaking to his work on Valentino. The BFI have also brought together a diverse selection of special features, most of which have also been transferred in high definition.

It was followed shortly after by two other Russell dual format Blu-ray/DVD sets from the BFI, including Ken Russell: The Great Passions and Ken Russell: The Great Composers, the former bringing together various films from Russell’s earlier work, and the latter showcasing his work with the BBC. Whilst Valentino is not a factual depiction of the life of legendary silent superstar Rudolph Valentino, it is a fascinating examination of his star image. Biographically, the film does not rank very high and indeed there has not been a faithful film biopic of Rudy’s life thus far. However, in terms of filmmaking, critically, much like Russell’s other films, it has become a classic, and this restoration will serve as the perfect introduction to a whole new generation of film fans.

Michelle Phillips and Rudolf Nuryev in Ken Russell's Valentino (1977), driving

Michelle Phillips and Rudolf Nuryev in Valentino (1977)

Valentino BFI Blu-ray/DVD dual format edition special features

  • An informative audio commentary from Tim Lucas which provides a critical observation of the film
  • Dudley Sutton discussing starring in Valentino and working with Ken Russell (2015, 22 mins)
  • Lynn Seymour remembers Rudolf Nureyev (2003, 9 mins, audio with stills) – the renowned Canadian ballerina remembers her friend during the ‘Nureyev at the NFT’ season
  • The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre (1987/8, 90 mins, audio with stills)
  • Lynn Seymour remembers Rudolf Nureyev (2003, 9 mins, audio with stills)
  • Tonight: Nureyev on Ken Russell and Valentino (1977, 9 mins) – rarely seen archival interview with the star, discussing working on the film
  • Stills gallery featuring stills from the film, on set photo, film posters, and production shots, including costume designs by Shirley Russell (2016, 10 mins)
  • The funeral of Rudolph Valentino (1926, 9 mins) – archival footage of the monumental funeral of a legend
  • Textless opening and closing credits
  • Isolated music and effects track
  • Original TV spots and trailers
  • Fully illustrated booklet with extensive credits and newly commissioned essays

UK | 1977 | colour and black and white | English HoH subtitles | 128 minutes | Original aspect ratio 1.85:1 | Cert: 18 (contains strong sex and sexual threat)

  • Disc 1: region B BD50 | 1080p | 24fps | PCM 2.0 stereo| PCM 2.0 mono
  • Disc 2: region 2 DVD9 | PAL | Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo | Dolby Digital 2.0 mono

Here’s your chance to get a copy for free, courtesy of the BFI:

Michelle Phillips and Rudolf Nuryev in Ken Russell's Valentino (1977), naked

Michelle Phillips and Rudolf Nuryev in Valentino (1977)

Images © British Film Institute

Ken Russell’s Valentino has also been released on Blu-ray by Kino in the US and BelAir Classiques in France.

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