Lisztomania, released in 1975, can be seen as a logical development of Ken Russell’s early 70s movies, with the bizarre surreal dream/fantasy sequences finally taking over the movie completely. Such plot as the film possesses is driven entirely by these sequences. There is no conventional narrative at all. And even by Ken Russell standards, this movie is excessive. In fact excessive is a pitifully inadequate word to describe this movie.
The inspiration for the movie was the career of 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He was not merely a notable composer. As a concert pianist he was arguably the first musician to develop the kind of following later to be associated with rock stars. He also lived something of a rock star lifestyle, involving numerous liaisons with rich and important women, none of whom he married. He was an early champion of Wagner, and his daughter Cosima later married Wagner. In later life he entered the Franciscan order.
Despite its outrageous style, most of the events of the movie have some basis in Liszt’s actual life. But the style is very outrageous indeed - with Wagner as a Nazi vampire, a gigantic penis, rock’n’roll, a pipe-organ spaceship, groupies, lots of sex, Ringo Starr as the pope in a rather cool motorised papal throne and a drunken mechanical Norse God being some of the highlights. The fact that Wagner wields an electric guitar that doubles as a nachine-gun, while Liszt fights back with a flamethrower-equipped piano, will give you some idea of the film’s tone.
The casting of The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, as Liszt works surprisingly well. Daltrey’s perfomance isn’t a conventional acting performance, but that’s not what the film calls for. He has the charisma, and he has the right combination of arrogance, charm and a rather naïve likeability. And he succeeds in capturing much of the actual personality of the composer, and most certainly captures the magic that was the secret of his immense popular appeal. He’s a showman, and he plays Liszt as a showman.
The movie takes a particular aspect of Russell’s film-making as far as it can possibly go, and even without the chronic financing problems that have bedeviled his subsequent career he would still have needed to change direction after this film. It’s to his credit that he realised this, and despite their lack of critical and public acceptance the movies he made from the late 70s to the early 90s, movies like Valentino, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm and Whore, represent an interesting and impressive achievement.
It’s impossible to do justice to the full extent of this movie’s weirdness. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that it is essentially a comedy. If you remember this then I think the movie can be considered a success. The director’s intention was to have some fun, and you're not supposed to take it as seriously as, for example, The Music Lovers or Mahler.
The cleverest thing about the movie is the way Ken Russell is able to weave such bizarre and grotesque fantasy sequences without actually departing from the essential facts of Liszt’s life. The very term Lisztomania was in fact coined in the 19th century to describe the hysterical reactions of Liszt’s female fans to his concert performances.
If you like Ken Russell’s style you’ll probably like this one, but if you don’t like his work then Lisztomania will probably confirm every negative feeling you have about him! I don’t think it’s a great Ken Russell movie, but it’s amusing and I quite enjoyed it.
The Region 2 DVD includes a commentary track by Ken Russell.