LISZTOMANIA (1973) – The Dungeon Review!
Director Ken Russell throws everything but the kitchen sink into Lisztomania! It is a biography, comedy, musical, drama, war, horror, fantasy thing. Franz Liszt is a flamboyant womanizing rockstar-esque classical composer and his peer Richard Wagner is a Nazi vampire who uses his compositions for evil. Needless to say Russell takes liberties with the composers’ lives! By the way, the Pope is Ringo Starr. Strangely, Lisztomania is not nearly as well-known as Ken Russell’s Tommy which was made the same year and also stars Roger Daltrey. What a shame because Lisztomania is definitely the superior film. Was it because of the Nazis? Did the living relatives of Richard Wagner protest? In my opinion, Lisztomania is one of the 1970s greatest underappreciated gems!
Lisztomania opens with Franz Liszt caught in bed with the wife of a Count. The Count challenges Liszt to a duel but settles with sealing Liszt and his cheating wife inside a piano and places them on a railroad track before a train approaches. The flash of a camera brings Liszt back to the present where he is about to perform a piece of music written by Richard Wagner. Liszt’s theatrics provoke his bonnet-wearing female audience to scream at him like a rockstar, and Liszt throws some chopsticks into the composition much to Wagner’s horror. During his performance he motions towards women in the audience to whom he would like to become acquainted. One of these women is Princess Carolyn. There will be more on her later.
There is a heavy emphasis on Franz Liszt’s relationship with Richard Wagner in Lisztomania. Liszt’s and Wagner’s first interaction in the film speaks volumes about the nature of their relationship. While Wagner has been participating in an uprising Liszt has been locked away composing music. When Wagner reappears he is a wanted criminal asking Liszt for money. At this point we learn Wagner is a vampire. You read that right. Richard Wagner is a vampire. Richard Wagner is one character that will stay with me forever and ever! This is one of the most outrageous and hilarious fictional interpretations of a real person’s life I have ever seen! Wagner is not only a vampire composer of classical music but an embracer of Nazi propaganda, which he incorporates into his compositions. Wagner’s Nazi leanings have compelled him to use his music for evil. Wagner is also a mad scientist and is working on a creature that will rid the world of Jews! Paul Nicholas is the cat’s ass as Wagner! As much as I loved Wagner it is Liszt who gets most of the focus. It is hard not to admire Roger Daltrey’s enthusiastic performance as Franz Liszt; he is just perfect as the arrogant and showy composer. Recruiting a rockstar to play a classical “rockstar-like” composer was sort of a no-brainer really, but Daltrey is nonetheless an excellent choice.
Look at those mad set pieces in Liszt’s boudoir!! Garish and showy like the man himself. Have I mentioned that Liszt is married with three children?! Liszt…you are such a dog! All is not well with this marriage. Franz and Marie’s ensembles are as gaudy as their interior design. Franz’s robe coordinates with the room! Marie’s voluminous frilly bright pink dressing gown is like a moving gaping wound. The sets and costumes are superb throughout Lisztomania; colorful, creative, quirky, and often comical!
Princess Carolyn wastes no time seducing Liszt with a proposition! For control of Liszt’s life, Princess Carolyn will grant him the ability to compose brilliant music. Princess Carolyn is a cigar-smoking, humorless and intimidating woman with a magnificent wardrobe. In Liszt’s hallucination, the Princess appears to him as the Devil and oh what a truly magnificent outfit she wears for the occasion! Princess Carolyn completely dominates Liszt’s life but like everything else, it too shall pass.
Liszt has a hallucination that he is being attacked by five of the Princess’ female attendants. But Liszt is able to tame the wild women with his music. They react so passionately to his music that it gives him an erection large enough for five women to ride like a carousel horse. They watch it grow and grow and grow and grow! I am not really a fan of musicals but I sure did enjoy this rousing crowd-pleasing number! It begins with a giant cock and ends with a guillotine. I am sure I would watch a lot more musicals if they incorporated giant cocks.
Liszt decides to live his life as an abbot?! He is visited by the Pope who catches him in bed with a woman. The pope lays down the law; Liszt is to exorcise Wagner or he will be excommunicated and his music banned forever!!
Wagner unveils his creation to Liszt. The Frankenstein-inspired Thor creature was concocted by Wagner to kill Jews. Unfortunately the creature does not react in a manner that suits Wagner so it is back to the table for Franken-Thor. The creature is played by Rick Wakeman of Yes, who also scored the film.
Liszt’s eldest daughter Cosima is seduced by and marries Wagner. She fully embraces Wagner’s principles and together they lead an army of spirited children to world domination. “We will be the master race!” The children march in Superman like costumes that boast “W” in Wagner’s honor. “The flowering youth of Germany was raped by the beast!” Cosima’s Nazi leanings and her hatred for her father makes her Wagner’s perfect ally.
Lisztomania is truly one of a kind! It is cheeky, clever and funny as hell! I laughed heartily and often throughout. The film is perfectly cast and the performances are top-notch by all. The music is an interesting mix of rock and classical with a score from Rick Wakeman of Yes and lyrics written by Ken Russell and Roger Daltrey. The sets and costumes are astounding. The story while clearly a loose biography does actually draw from some non-fictional sources including Marie d’Agoult’s book Nélida. And Lisztomania is a term accredited to Heinrich Heine who used it to describe the response to Liszt’s actual performances. Lisztomania has been one of my favourite film experiences of the year and makes me excited to check out more of Ken Russell’s work! My highest of recommendations with whip cream and a cherry on top…a perfect score!
***Thanks for another fan-fucking-tastic recommendation Mr. Arrate!***
Dungeon Rating: 5/5
Directed By: Ken Russell
Starring: Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas, Ringo Starr, Rick Wakeman, John Justin, Fiona Lewis, Veronica Quilligan, Nell Campbell, Andrew Reilly, David English, Imogen Claire