“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 (1811-1886) 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.