Lisztomania (1975)


(director/writer: Ken Russell; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Stuart Baird; music: Rick Wakeman; cast: Roger Daltrey (Franz Liszt), Sara Kestelman (Princess Carolyn), Paul Nicholas (Richard Wagner), Rick Wakeman (Thor), John Justin (Count d’Agoult), Fiona Lewis (Countess Marie d’Agoult), Ringo Starr (Pope), Veronica Quilligan (Cosima), Hans von Bulow (Andrew Reilly), Olga (Nell Campbell); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Roy Baird/David Puttnam; Warner Brothers; 1975-UK)
“It’s not for those who find Russell’s zany antics a bit much.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Ken Russell (“Tommy”/”Mahler”) creates an outrageous love it or hate it freewheeling biopic on 19th century pianist-composer Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey, the likeable lead singer for The Who) that brings a fanged Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), as a Nazi Antichrist, along for the ride. It’s not for those who find Russell’s zany antics a bit much. Here the director is at his most self-indulgent, tacky and crudest, as he reduces serious classical music composers down to the level of pop culture icons (doing each a disservice). It’s fun only as a camp piece. But its humor is witless and the “rock opera” treatment goes amiss. Its top heavy with unrelenting nastiness (it’s a misogynistic work), an unpleasant and obscene narrative, and dubious casting decisions of Ringo Starr as the Pope and Roger Daltrey as the lead, who comes across stiff as an actor (no pun intended). Also, it makes for a manic superficial Freudian exploration of such things as power trips, a Messiah trip and a sex trip as a vehicle for art. The film relies on its excesses, kinkiness and a few set piece gags that skewer Liszt as a self-promoting professional hustler who started as a working-class tutor for the rich but who paves the way to hobnob with European royalty and live a hedonistic life by having many mistresses and groupies and the even more outlandish skits with his arch-rival Wagner. He’s depicted as a nutty fanatical Jew hater who envisions his nationalistic music unifying Germany, which is shown as later on being an inspiration for Nazism. Wagner married Liszt’s daughter Cosima (Veronica Quilligan), stealing her away from her husband and child.

The director has tried to make another Tommy, his only film to be a commercial success. But this one doesn’t have the legs or the music to reach beyond its small ready made cult audience. Reality has no place in this film, so if you wanted to know more about Liszt and Wagner you would have to go to other sources. What Russell accomplishes here in spades is to trash Liszt’s life and hold up Wagner to ridicule. Russell reaches far but is only able to grasp a few dazzling images that are weird enough to deserve a look.