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British film director Ken Russell has died. His florid adaptations of classic literature, and over-the-top biopics, range from provocative to downright perverse. He's best known for such films as "Tommy," "Women in Love" and "Altered States." Russell died yesterday after a series of strokes. He was 84.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance of a director whose operatic imagination earned him both dismissals and devotion.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: They called him Kinky Ken Russell for a reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DEVILS")

ULABY: Vanessa Redgrave plays a definitely unholy nun being tortured in Ken Russell's movie "The Devils," from 1971. Of course, the church objected, as did a legion of critics disgusted by the film's excesses of masked revelers and sadomasochistic priests.

Here's Russell, a Catholic convert, on NPR in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KENNETH RUSSELL: My films assault people, but then that's because the images are very potent. I don't have any gratuitous scenes in my films. They're actually integral to the plot.

ULABY: It took Ken Russell decades to become the provocateur who gleefully stirred up scandal after cinematic scandal from the late 1960s through the late '80s. First, he wanted to be a sailor. He joined the British Merchant Marine, but was constantly seasick. He came home, had a nervous breakdown, then heard something on the radio that unleashed his inner artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Classical music was a revelation. Ken Russell started cranking Tchaikovsky while leaping around his parents' house, naked. His ambition to dance professionally failed when he got kicked out of ballet school for being too clumsy. Then came attempts at the Air Force and acting. Finally, photography led to TV directing. That newfound passion for classical music led to a documentary that became one of the BBC's most popular.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ELGAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When Elgar was a boy, he spent hours on his own, riding on his father's pony along the ridges of the Malvern Hills.

ULABY: "Elgar" is a restrained portrait of composer Edward Elgar. Nothing like the director's later, overdramatized biopics of Tchaikovsky, Liszt or Strauss. That last one nearly got him sued by the BBC and the composer's son. But the director relished controversy, says producer Daniel Ireland.

DANIEL IRELAND: He loved it. The more you could write about him and the nastier you could write about him, Ken sort of celebrated being bad.

ULABY: Ireland produced four of Russell's movies in the 1980s. As a young fan, he fell in love with "Women in Love," the movie that made Russell's reputation. In 1969, it won an Oscar for star Glenda Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WOMEN IN LOVE")

GLENDA JACKSON: (as Gudrun Brangwen) Why have you come?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) And why do you want to drive them mad?

IRELAND: I mean, he was very, very smart in picking actors. If you look through his career, I mean, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, all at the beginning of their careers.

ULABY: Ken Russell had an eye not just for strong actors who could handle his strong subjects, but material that shared his flamboyant sensibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: He enjoyed one of his rare critical successes in 1975 with his adaptation of The Who's "Tommy."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOMMY")

THE WHO: (Singing) I'm your wicked Uncle Ernie. I'm glad you won't see or hear me as I mill about - mill about.

ULABY: Ken Russell would egg his actors on with screams of, way more abandon. Producer Daniel Ireland says he directed like a conductor.

IRELAND: He directed with music playing in his head full volume. His films would come to life like that.

ULABY: Ireland says Ken Russell was just as full of life as his films. But the director told NPR 10 years ago his reputation as an extravagant, decadent figure could not be further from the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RUSSELL: I have been made so by the press. But whenever anyone meets me - I mean, like now - say, oh, how quiet and charming he is. And I am.

ULABY: Towards the end of his life, Ken Russell retreated from feature films but continued to stay in the public eye - and raised the public's eyebrows by appearing on the reality show "Celebrity Big Brother," in Britain.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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