A long-haired pretty boy sings and plays for audiences of young woman who become hysterical with an aesthetic fervor that stirs their very loins. This is the tale of many a rock and roll star in the 20th century. But would you believe this was also the story of a 19th century composer? The notion of Hungarian he-man Franz Liszt as a pop star on a level with the Beatles is not one out of left field. German poet Heinrich Heine coined the titular term in 1844 after bearing witness to the bodily affect his contemporary’s music and performance had upon the female populace. Reports of the time note that women did indeed hurl their underthings at the long-haired pretty boy, anticipating Tom Jones mania by generations. What alchemical wizard of the outré and outrageous would dare put such a tale to celluloid? In 1975 there was only one answer: Ken Russell.
Russell’s script for Lisztomania was based on a tell-all memoir by one of the composer’s lovers, so one may give the director some license for running wild with its subject’s sexual appetite, even if it does result in an excess of phallic symbolism. The movie begins with a dream sequence – it is Ken Russell after all – in which the composer (The Who’s Roger Daltrey, in a dry run for Russell’s all-star film adaptation of Tommy) imagines himself and a lover strapped into a piano, an instrument which, in a variation on the old cinematic trope, is tied to the train tracks while a steam engine roars its way toward the lovers. Did I mention the phallic symbolism? This is just the first of Russell’s homages to early cinema, as an interlude has Liszt impersonating Charlie Chaplin that is as cringe-inducing as that sounds.
The outlandish plot revolves around Liszt’s lovers as well as his relationship with fellow composer Richard Wagner, who in one gratuitous but kind of ingenious scene becomes a vampire who drinks Liszt’s blood in order to fuel his own compositions. Music that, as it turns out in a fantasy that spans generations beyond the composer’s lifetimes, leads directly to the rise of the Third Reich.
If this seems a bit too much, it sure is! But Rick Wakeman’s arrangements of music by Liszt and Wagner are bombastically catchy. And after a non-stop madcap couple of reels that is almost unbearable to watch, Russell calms down, relatively speaking, and if you can make it that far the movie ends with a brilliant and even angelic vision that marries traditional church instrumentation and the space age.
Russell died just last year, and his brand of cinematic pyrotechnics may never be seen again (pace Baz Luhrman). Lisztomania is one of Russell’s failures, utterly fearless and at times unbearable. But as with many of Russell’s films, its inconsistencies nevertheless guarantee at least a few images that will stay with you.
LIke most Warner Archives releases, the DVD of Lisztomania does not include any extras. It is available for purchase here.