Lisztomania (1975)

Lisztomania_1975_1One of my great regrets is that I don’t know more about classical music. I can pick out and identify the heavy hitters, but that’s most likely due to exposure via movies or Warner Brothers cartoons. Given that, I likely couldn’t, given a choice of five classical pieces, pick out which one was by Franz Liszt.

Still, here I am, watching Ken Russell’s biopic of the composer.

“Lisztomania” was apparently a very real thing, a term coined during Liszt’s glory days as a concert pianist; normally staid concert-goers were shocked by the screams of ecstasy and longing from Liszt’s young female admirers. (It has also been pointed out that a better translation of those contemporary writings is “Liszt Fever”, as “mania” held a much more serious meaning in the 19th century) Therefore, it seems fairly reasonable to cast Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who, as a very real classical music rock star.

Lisztomania-26110_2Lisztomania is concerned with the composer’s adult life, starting with his affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis), then into a concert where the audience is populated by screaming young girls (causing me to flash back to the final concert scenes of A Hard Day’s Night), then onward through his years of fruitful creativity under Princess Carolyn zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (Sara Kestelman), finally ending with his exorcism of the Nazi vampire Richard Wagner, using a flame-throwing piano made of steel and glass. Then Liszt returns from the afterlife in a pipe organ spaceship powered by the women he loved in life, to defeat Wagner, resurrected as a Frankenstein Monster/Adolf Hitler with an electric guitar that doubles as a machine gun.

What I’m saying is, some liberties may have been taken with Liszt’s biography.

liszt5Now, biopics almost always play fast and loose with the truth, because movies, you know? Anybody going into a biopic directed by Ken Russell expecting a documentary is, to put it politely, going to be blown out the back of the theater by the sheer force of the extravagant visuals that flow out of the screen like a water cannon. That is, if they haven’t had a heart attack at the first sight of bare boobies 30 seconds into the film. And remember: we are talking about Ken Russell right after Tommy.

The drying up of Liszt’s creative powers during his years of non-connubial bliss with Marie is presented as a silent Charlie Chaplin movie, accompanied by Liszt’s “Love Dream” (Liebestraum), with lyrics by Daltrey. That’s a conceit that shouldn’t work, but it’s brilliant. And if you hadn’t already figured out that this movie was going to have only the slightest flirtation with reality by that opening concert with its mylar curtain backdrop, this is at least a fairly gentle – for Russell – wake-up call.

lisztomaniae_thumbConsidering we’ll be soon entering into the segment where Liszt is seduced by Princess Carolyn, who will unlock his pent-up creative juices (heh) by forcing him to abandon his libertine ways and concentrate on composing. This is presented in a sequence involving Liszt growing a ten foot erection during a production number with the Princess’ chambermaids, who then feed the preposterous priapism through a guillotine manned by the Princess in her best Rocky Horror corset. This is entirely justified artistically (I am sure).

And did I mention Ringo Starr as the Pope?

And did I mention Ringo Starr as the Pope?

Russell is one of those directors I have come to appreciate late in life. In my early adult years, I knew him mainly for Altered States (for which my acidhead phase thanks him) and Crimes of Passion (for which… not so much). In subsequent years I’ve found Salome’s Last Dance, and thanks to the BFI and a region-free DVD player (and no thanks to Warner Brothers), The Devils. In my younger days, he was known as “Mr. Wretched Excess”, but I have really come to appreciate his audacity as well as his visual sense.

After nearly six decades on the planet (most of it spent watching movies), I’m more than grateful to find a filmmaker who not only makes me say “Oh what the fuck?” on a regular basis, but also makes sure that I have a smile on my face while doing it.

 Lisztomania on Amazon

1 Comment

  1. Note to self: watch this one.


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