“A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”-Heinrich Heine on “Lisztomania” (1844)
DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell
PLOT: Composer/pianist Franz Liszt hosts concerts before screaming throngs of 19th century women, and enjoys as many groupies and mistresses as he can fit in on the side. Young composer Richard Wagner gives Liszt a piece to perform, thinking it will make his career, but is outraged when the star transforms the composition into his hit “Chopsticks” on stage. Wagner takes it upon himself to wreck Liszt’s life and career, eventually seducing the older musician’s illegitimate daughter into joining his fascist cult while simultaneously building an Aryan monster with which he hopes to conquer the world.
- There really was a phenomenon known as Lisztomania (the term was coined by the poet Heinrich Heine). Hungarian Franz Liszt (1881-1886) was a virtuoso concert pianist as well as a composer, and as a young man his concerts would induce fits of hysteria in (especially female) concertgoers; fans would fight over the performer’s discarded gloves or broken piano strings. This condition of ecstatic fandom, now familiar to anyone who has ever attended an arena rock concert, was unheard of at the time, and authorities were seriously concerned about it, considering it a psychological disorder.
- Portions of the movie were adapted from the book “Nélida” by Countess Marie d’Agoult (played in the film by Fiona Lewis). The novel was a thinly-disguised description of her love affair with Liszt (with whom she had three illegitimate children).
- Lisztomania was made by Russell back-to-back and released in the same year as the hit rock opera Tommy, which also starred Daltrey.
- Lisztomania was the first movie recorded in Dolby sound.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The musical number at the Russian palace where Liszt pulls out his giant inflatable, um, instrument, and the scantily clad female dancers treat it as an, um, maypole.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At times, it’s the biography of Franz Liszt if it were directed by Benny Hill working from a script by Federico Fellini. With Nazi golems, Richard Wagner as a vampire, a climax aboard a heavenly spaceship, and a giant phallic musical number, this phantasmagorical biopic is Ken Russell at his ebullient silliest.
Clip from Lisztomania
COMMENTS: In his melodramatically excessive movies like The Devils or Altered States, it’s sometimes hard to tell when Ken Russell is being embarrassingly earnest and when he’s telling a campy joke with a straight face. That’s why a straight-out musical lampoon like Lisztomania is a refreshing entry in Russell’s crazy canon: while watching it, we can at least be certain we’re laughing at the same things the director is.
Russell began his filmmaking career making straightforward documentary biographies of classical composers for BBC television (between 1961 and 1963 he created entries on Prokofiev, Elgar and Debussy). Once he set out on his own, Russell incorporated his peculiar brand of irreverent surrealism to his musical biopics of Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970) and Gustav Mahler (Mahler, 1974). Although these two composer pics were weird, they did seriously intend to plumb the psychologies of their subjects (focusing on Tchaicovsky’s homosexuality and Mahler’s Jewishness). Lisztomania, by comparison, is pure bizarre burlesque, throwing all reverence and reason out the door. Taking its cue from the historical phenomenon of “Listzomania,” Russell imagines Franz Liszt as the world’s first rock star, a womanizing itinerant hedonist and mouthpiece for the Power of Love. Killing two birds with one stone, he throws another composer—Liszt’s contemporary and eventual son-in-law Richard Wagner—on his farcical pyre, too, turning the controversial operatic master into a campy villain from a Universal horror movie.
In a perverse way, Russell actually adheres to the particulars of Franz Listz’s life, only viewed through a distorting pop-psychedelic lens. Consider the following list of actual Liszt factoids, coupled with Russell’s aberrant emendations:
FACT: Franz Liszt was Hungarian.
—BUT: He did not have a Cockney accent.
FACT: Liszt had an adulterous affair with Countess Marie d’Agoult.
—BUT: After catching them in the act, her husband the Count did not nail a nude Marie and Franz into a grand piano and leave it on train tracks in front of an onrushing locomotive.
FACT: Before their falling out, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and composer Richard Wagner were mutual admirers.
—BUT: Wagner did not attend cocktail parties wearing a sailor’s cap with the word “Nietzsche” stitched on it.
FACT: Liszt was an enormously popular performer who incited hysteria in audiences.
—BUT: He did not breakdance on a rhinestone encrusted piano while wearing a sequined cape during his concerts.
FACT: As a young man, Liszt was popular with the ladies and had numerous affairs.
—BUT: He did not sport a giant inflatable penis capable of supporting five dancing girls at a time.
FACT: Wagner admired Liszt and his melodies were often influenced by the older composer: for example, the opening motif of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” strongly resembles Liszt’s song “Ich möchte hingehen,” and the theme from “Parsifal” is based on “Excelsior!”
—BUT: Wagner did not telepathically extract melodies from Liszt’s mind by drugging him and sucking his blood while playing the piano.
FACT: The Pope denied Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein permission to divorce her husband and marry Liszt.
—BUT: Ringo Starr was not Pope at the time.
FACT: Late in life Liszt retired to an abbey and took monastic orders, and was actually certified as an exorcist.
—BUT: The Vatican did not blackmail him into sneaking into Wagner’s castle to cast out the Devil.
FACT: Although he was old enough to be her father, Wagner wedded Liszt’s illegitimate daughter Cosima.
—BUT: He did not seduce her into a proto-fascist cult by using his music as a mind-altering drug.
FACT: Wagner was a German nationalist and anti-Semite who posthumously became the favorite composer of the Nazi party.
—BUT: He was not a vampire and mad scientist capable of transforming himself into a machine gun-toting cross between Hitler and Frankenstein’s monster.
FACT: Franz Liszt died in 1886.
—BUT: He did not return from the dead in an organ-shaped spaceship powered by love to defeat fascism and war with one last musical number. At least, not yet.
To object that this plot belittles the genius of Franz Liszt by making him into a vapid pop star, or that it unfairly demonizes Richard Wagner by depicting him as a vindictive Nazi plagiarist, would be to confess that you were taking this scenario seriously, which Russell clearly did not. If you want to complain about something in Lisztomania, you can object to Roger Daltrey’s uncharismatic performance—he’s basically a stupid grin waiting for a chance to take his shirt off—or Rick Wakeman’s uninspiring score, which tries and fails to turn Liszt’s melodies into stirring rock anthems. But, basically, you either surrender to the flow of Russell’s daft mix of historical fact and B-movie mechanics, or you don’t. If you do let the film carry you along on its barmy currents, you’re almost certain to enjoy yourself. If not, maybe you can at least admire the fact that, while you may not be laughing at Lisztomania, it seems to be having a grand old time laughing at itself.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In a couple of sequences, it erupts successfully with a wholehearted, controlled comic-strip craziness, but, for all his lashing himself into a slapstick fury, the director, Ken Russell, can’t seem to pull the elements of filmmaking together.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Lisztomania (1975)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
All posters for Lisztomania – Gallery of posters for the film, including the notoriously phallic original release graphic
DVD INFO: Surprisingly, Lisztomania has never been released on DVD in Region 1 (North America) until Warner Archives unceremoniously dumped it on an extras-free DVD-R (buy) in 2012. As usual with Russell, Europeans have it better, as the Region 2 release by Digital Classics (buy) and includes a trailer and a commentary track by the director.
Lisztomania is available to rent or download digitally (view online).