As a film critic and avid watcher/studier, I latch on to certain filmmakers for certain periods of time, devour all I can by them, and then move on like some kind of piranha of artistic endeavors. I’ve been growing increasingly hungry for films by the expressionistic and often surrealistic British director Ken Russell. I’ve already written about his films The Devils and Altered States, and today I think I have possibly his strangest and most forcefully weird. It’s a treatise on rock stardom in the age of classical music. There is truly nothing quite like 1975’s Lisztomania.
I truly don’t know where to begin with this one. It’s a movie that from frame one to frame the last displays its author’s tastes, predilections, viewpoints, and indulgences in a way that very few get to do on a studio budget. This was the third of Russell’s major films about 19th Century composers, following 1970’s The Music Lovers about Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, and 1974’s Mahler about Gustav Mahler. Lisztomania is about the oldest of the bunch, Franz Liszt, the composer and pianist who lived from 1811 to 1886 and was in many ways the very first rock star. The term “Lisztomania” was invented by press at the time to describe the frenzy young women would break in to at a Liszt concert performance. The term “Beatlemania” exists because of “Lisztomania.”
The film stars Roger Daltrey as Liszt, an excellent choice given that Daltrey was himself a rock god with his band the Who. He’d only just worked with Russell on Tommy, the rock opera based on the Who’s seminal concept album, and must have had a great time of it. In this movie, he gets to get fawned over by hordes of women, engage in absurd sex scenes, and generally look and act like royalty at all times. But the movie ends up not being about Liszt so much as it’s about Richard Wagner becoming more and more a vile monstrous being who essentially started the Nazi party himself. I mean, sure.
The film starts with Liszt having an affair with a countess and then a Benny Hill-like duel-chase when the very foppish count comes in and discovers them. It’s during this scene where the series of dream sequences/hallucinations that Liszt has about his ever-growing fame raining down on him. He and the countess are trapped in a piano that’s left on train tracks while a steam engine races toward it. This signifies, I suppose, that Liszt feels trapped by his own libido and stardom and longs for something with more purpose, which leads to the later part of the film.
Early on, Liszt meets a young composer named Richard Wagner (Paul Nichols) who wears comical German resistance costume for the first part of the film. In a debauched club full of several other famous composers in cameos by some of Russell’s main cadre of actors, Wagner asks Liszt to play some of his music at his concert, big-upping his own prowess and decrying things like “Chopsticks.” Naturally, Liszt being a real piece of shit, decided to play the composition after making fun of Wagner’s big head and then interspersing bits of “Chopsticks.” This is Liszt at his most debauched and conceited.
The movie also spends lots of time with Liszt and the many women in his life, including the countess (Fiona Lewis), Princess Carolyn (Sara Kestelman) — who is the dominatrix-like central figure in an extended surrealist sequence in which Liszt has a comically large phallus that women dance around like a May Pole before he gets it cut off in the guillotine — and his illegitimate daughter Cosima (Veronica Quilligan), whom he doesn’t have much time for. All of the women begin to resent him and for his hedonism, and he knows he should change his ways.
Cosima gets married and has a child, but she soon meets the revolutionary Wagner and Liszt gets word that the two have eloped. It’s here when the movie starts to get especially heavy-handed. Liszt, as he did in real life, attempts to leave the world of concert piano and hedonism and devote himself to the Catholic Church, but Wagner aims to use Liszt to get his own message out to the German people as they overthrow the current regime. Wagner is literally shown to have vampire teeth and dig them in to the back of Liszt, operating him like a puppet as he plays Wagner’s music for fascist and Aryan reasons. Liszt meets the Pope (played by Ringo Starr of all people) as he has a relapse into the bed of another woman, and the Pontiff tells him that Wagner is the Antichrist and needs to be stopped.
As if that weren’t enough, the whole end of the movie takes place in a Hammer Horror-esque castle where Wagner and Cosima are training a group of young, blonde children to hate the Jews. Wagner attempts to create the perfect Superman, the symbol of white supremacy, like a Frankenstein monster who looks like Thor and is played by electronic musician Rick Wakeman, who also did the score for the film. Even though Liszt “destroys” Wagner by using a flamethrower-piano to knock down the parapets of the castle, he eventually rises again, looking way more like Hitler than you’d think, and walking down the road followed by the Aryan children, shooting a guitar machine gun at the sky.
Yeah. So it very quickly ceases to be about Franz Liszt, despite a finale in which Liszt in heaven or whatever hangs out with all of the women in his life playing music before getting into a rocket ship made of pipe organs. Anyway. I have a theory that Russell was really working through stuff about the Wagners. In Mahler, there’s a lengthy sequence in which Mahler is tempted to make music for Mother Germany by Cosima Wagner who dresses like a Nazi dominatrix and Mahler is on a crucifix. And then a year later he makes a movie where Richard Wagner — who definitely was a vile, hateful, anti-Semite — kickstarted the Nazi Party through his music, which was indeed appropriated in later years by the Wagner estate. I truly think Ken Russell haaaaaaaated Richard Wagner and needed a place to take out his aggression.
At any rate, Lisztomania is a film that needs to be seen to truly be believed. It’s a vibrant, frenetic, hallucinatory glimpse at rock & roll excess in the days of classical music…and then it’s a weird-ass treatise on why Wagner was a fascist vampire monster person. And unlike The Music Lovers and Mahler, there’s almost no Liszt music in the movie…but it’s totally worth a watch. I’m still shaking my head about it.
Images: Warner Bros