The experimental director brought the “creative genius” of classical composers to life on screen.

Tributes have poured in for the English film and opera director Ken Russell, who died on November 27 at the age of 84. Like fellow Brit Tony Palmer, he possessed a remarkable gift for capturing the inner lives of composers and musicians. He was equally at home working with classical music, rock or British folk.

Following a short-lived stint as a ballet dancer, he launched his film career in the 1960s with a series of groundbreaking BBC documentaries on composers including Elgar, Bartòk, Vaughan Williams and Delius, citing the latter, Song of Summer, as the greatest film he ever made. The Debussy Film is one of his earliest experimental projects, with striking imagery reminiscent of a French New Wave classic.

During the 1970s Russell’s style grew bolder and more flamboyant, and he wasn’t afraid to court controversy. Dance of the Seven Veilsdepicted Richard Strauss in wanton cahoots with Hitler, prompting the Strauss estate to have the film banned. His Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers(1970) explored the Russian composer’s homosexuality at a time in which it wasn’t openly discussed. André Previn conducted the score.

Equally provocative was...