I love movies. All types of movies, but most those of the Art House variety. Among the world of serious cinephillia, British filmmaker Ken Russell often causes a sort of frantic run to the nearest Exit. While nearly all will agree that his early BBC films and his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love are brilliant. The rest of his work is generally regarded as excessive and hysterical madness. In the last decade a new found appreciation has evolved for his still controversial critique of merging Church and State, Catholicism, religion and the human tendency toward cruelty in his 1971 film, The Devils.
His biggest commercial success was the filmed rock opera, Tommy. Released in 1975, film critics had a hard time dismissing it. Nothing had shown up on screens quite like it. 40 years later this loud and hopelessly entertaining film is still regarded as the perfect marriage of Ken Russell cinematic urges and mid-1970’s rock culture. That same year, feeling inspired and with a bit of film industry power he had never enjoyed, he went for the pop culture jugular: He made Lisztomania.
If you should find yourself in a room of film loving intellectuals and bring up this notorious big-budget major studio released rock musical flop, you will either encounter smirking laughter or a total silence of seething judgement. I have never really seriously cared what people think of me.
Though, I do hate it when someone thinks me to be a mean-spirited person. That I am not.
But am I a fan of Ken Russell? Yes. Do I love Russell’s odd cinematic error that is Lisztomania? Oh, yeah. I love it.
I fully embrace the insanity that is Lisztomania. I bow my head in awe that there was ever a time in the history of Warner Bros. that they would fully engage, promote and full scale release a movie like Lisztomania. While I know the film is more than a little problematic, I struggle to understand how anyone could refute the uniqueness of this crass bit of Pop Art. I struggle even more to understand why anyone would not enjoy the insane logic of it’s existence. And my jaw drops when someone tells me that they find it dull.
Well, here I do exaggerate. Only two people have ever told me that they were bored by Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. And both of these people pointed out that they found the first 15 minutes of the movie dull. Once Roger Daltrey’s cockney-accented take on Hungarian/German composer, Franz Liszt. True enough, the only even minor slow-paced moment in the film is a concert in which Daltrey entertains an audience of mostly young female fans swooning and screaming if at a rock concert. The scene does seem a bit out of place in the film, but it makes sense given the point that Ken Russell is attempting to make.
And, of course, prior to this concert sequence, we are treated to a British Music Hall-sylte (the British version of similar to American vaudeville theater) gone into the profane and raunchy. The opening of the film features Count d’Agoult catching his wife, Marie, enjoying frantic sex with her piano tutor, Franz. Nude and silly antics ensue accompanied by a from of sort of Gaelic-Country musical narration. End all ends with the count having poor Marie and Franz placed nude inside a piano as the Count plays chords. Franz is panicked and Maria seems to be gaining a bit of, well, pleasure from some of the piano banging.
Suddenly they are nailed into the piano left on train tracks about to face their death. Cut to a backstage gathering of some of the great European composers, artistes and groupies awaiting for Franz to take to the stage. Enter a young, idealistic and ambitious Richard Wagner who attempts to pimp his music to Franz.
It is all quite over-the-top, silly, illogical, surreal and just straight-up weird. Please note: This was all Ken Russell’s intent. Everything in Lisztomania is intentional, profane, silly and often spastic.
As Russell had just wrangled the Rock God Machine that was/is The Who to create the movie, Tommy, — he noted several similarities to the level of decadence and public sensation that followed the band and it’s lead singer to that of classical composer, Franz Liszt. It dawned on Russell that when one reads accounts of Franz Liszt’s career one could easily draw comparisons that form the idea that Liszt was in many ways the world’s first Pop Star.
True enough. Liszt had legions of young women who would fight their way into the places he performed. These women were fanatical in the way they would behave as Liszt played his piano. Screaming, swooning and often having to be restrained from trying to touch the renowned artist. And if one is to believe commentary of his day, Franz Liszt quite enjoyed the attention. In the early 1800’s German Essayists and Cultural Critic, Heinrich Heine, coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe the hysteria that the composer’s playing, music and mere presence seemed to drive many of his female listeners to hysterical reactions and distractions. However, it should be pointed out that this was not really given the same levity as Beatlemania in the early to mid-1960’s. The idea of “Pop Star” or “Rock Star” and “Celebrity” had no where began to take hold of culture. This seemed more like a strange temporary illness than a “normal” fever-pitched reaction to a performer.
Female audience members of Liszt’s piano performances were known to scream his name, swoon, attempt to climb onto the stage, scream out demands that he play the piece we all know as “Chop Sticks” and often followed him about in hopes of grabbing a tossed cigar butt to stuff down their blossoms. Up until his early 30’s Liszt was known to play the piano standing and often jump from behind the piano to speak to his audience. He was also never too far from scandal. His on-going and tempestuous affair with Marie d’Agoult was the cause of much rumor and discussion. Interestingly this only served to promote his popularity. Then there was Russia’s Princess Carolyn’s patronage and obsession with him and his work. Later in life he suffered the indignities of a piano student, Olga Janina, who could be called the first known insane “Fan Girl” who wold break into his home, steal personal belongings, stalk and even write controversial books about him. She wrote these more to get his attention than for profit.
His daughter, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner. Wagner’s interests were not limited to music, but also to philosophy. A philosophy which was alarmingly worrying in it’s view of German superiority. Cosima was quick to pick up and fuel her husband’s ideals about German cultural and racial superiority. She is largely to credit with the establishment and curation of the Bayreuth Festival. This festival became more about promotion of philosophy that would lead into pure antisemitism. This would continue to grow as Germany entered the NAZI Era. Cosima died in 1930. Without question, the legacy of she and Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival remains controversial to say the very least.
All of this strange history wrapped up in the lives of classical music composers was like a magnet to Ken Russell. Russell adored the biography film, but never limited himself to the typical “by-the-numbers-film-rule-book” when making them. Far more concerned about creating the passion and ideals of the artists’ works than sticking to traditional narrative, Russell’s composer bio films are unusual in the way in which he approaches their lives. He viewed the artist as rebel.
Capturing it all, and given more freedom of expression than any other filmmaker had yet to allow him, Peter Suschitzky’s work truly shines in this movie.
But when he made Lisztomania, he threw out all sense of logic. He become unhinged as he crafted a a sort of Pop Culture Comic Book movie about the life of Franz Liszt. The logic of any adherence to history time lines is absent. Franz List starts out as a sexy, raunchy and sex-crazed rock star. Soon he retreats to find his spiritual core only to be called out to defend not only the sanctity of music, but his emerging arch-enemy, Richard Wagner, breaks into his spiritual isolation to feed off his talent filled blood. Like a vampire, Wagner sucks a good deal of life force from Liszt.
Wagner sets out with Franz’s daughter, Cosima. They form a Nazi Cult! The Pope, played by Ringo Starr, calls on Franz to perform an exorcism to rid Wagner of the demon that has possessed him. Franz, playing at being a priest, kisses the cowboy boot of the bedazzled Pope, kicks his lover – Olga Janina (played by Little Nell) to the curb – and meets Wagner’s attempt at a German God Creation, THOR, (played by Yes’ Rick Wakeman) – this creation is a joke. The exorcism backfires. Through Cosima’s evil magik, Wagner rises up from Hell as The Hitler Monster and it is up to Franz and his harem of beautiful lovers and assorted groupies to fly down from Heaven in a rocket ship and blast Evil Old Wagner to bits!
Along the way, Ken Russell injects more glitter and wacked-out visionary trip-outs faster than a mood ring changes colors. Franz slips into Princess Carolyn’d vaginal canal, comes out to the sirens of former lovers who manage to tease his penis out to gigantic proportions. Sporing a hard-on of about 8 feet, a an old-school Vaudeville like dance number ensues. Believe it or not, the set pieces just continue to amp-up until Ken Russell’s Franz Liszt saves the world from Nazis.
And, just to make it all the more odd, Rick Wakeman re-arranges the music of Liszt and Wagner to early-electro-prog rock with Roger Daltrey supplying of so very modern lyrics. A&M Records and Warner Bros pimped the soundtrack album hard and released a single. The original vinyl is now a collector’s item, but Rick Wakeman re-mastered it all and released via iTunes in 2005.
The movie bombed and the soundtrack failed. If you want to see the movie, you will need turn to the Warner Archive for a fairly solid transition to DVD.
If you have a multi-region DVD player, you can still find a limited edition printing out of the UK. The quality of the UK print is fantastic and features a rambling commentary track by the great Ken Russell himself recorded not too long before his passing.
Lisztomania is not a great movie. Despite moments of true brilliance and experimental cinema, it is ultimately a cinematic error that holds an interesting bit of merit. This is a movie that stretches so far beyond the boundaries it is hard to use any normal criteria for judging it. It is a crazy and oddly entertaining film that sits by itself. Surrealistic, Absurdist, Satire and Super Hero Comic Book mess of a movie. It has most certainly become a Cult Movie, but it is a bit too intellectual to fully fit into the “So bad it’s good” ideology. And it is far too silly to be taken at all seriously.
It sits all alone as a film completely unique unto both itself and to the Film Artist who was Ken Russell.
This is my last defense of one of my favorite movies. I’ve intentionally tried not to give too much of the film away. My hope is that someone who has not seen it will venture to see it.
From time to time the unedited R-rated film shows up in full on YouTube, tho Warner Brothers is rightly quick to yank it off. I do not expect we will ever see this film restored.
However, it’s fanbase continues to build. Just search the Internet.
Matty Stanfield, 9.25.2015