He believed that nothing succeeds like excess. This grand and gaudy English director, who died Nov. 27 at 84 after a series of strokes, created surrealist biopics: studies of composers (Delius, Tchaikovsky, Liszt) that attached gossipy narratives to a fevered visual palette. No one else brought high art so deliciously low. He made hits from D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969) and the Who's Tommy (1975) and put sci-fi on peyote in Altered States (1980). His possessed-nun movie The Devils (1971) so appalled Catholics that there's no uncut version on DVD in the U.S. His son said Russell died with a smile on his face. No wonder: the old shockmeister never lost his talent to abuse.
This text originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2011 issue of TIME magazine.