January 2, 2015


Lisztomania (103 minutes) 1975/Rated R - starring Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas, Fiona Lewis, Veronica Quilligan, Nell Campbell, Andrew Reilly, Ringo Starr. Directed by Ken Russell. Available through Warner Home Video.

Ahh, director Ken Russell. Master of subtlety. Champion of the light touch. Just witness the opening frames of “Lisztomania.” We see a metronome ticking back and forth. There’s Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt in bed beside the measured metronome with the ravishing Countess Marie d’Agoult, keeping time in their mutual motions of love. Discovered by her husband, the Count, Daltrey engages him in sexually connotative sword thrusts while the Countess watches from bed, suggestively eating what else?…a banana. Okay, so this film is one long sex joke, right? After sitting through an hour and 45 minutes of this carnival of kookiness, all I can say is, your guess is as good as mine.

This is not to say that Russell’s vision isn’t original. Acting as a mad Cabaret emcee, this director of such films like “The Devils,” “Tommy,” and “Crimes of Passion,” presents the life of Franz Liszt in a sort of Grand Guignol, kaleidoscopic, cartoon world. The 19th century adoring female fans of Franz’ stage persona are Jane Austen-like groupies who squeal at him in delight. The court of Princess Carolyne von Wittgenstein, the woman who strongly influenced Liszt as a composer in Weimar, is adorned with huge phallic molds made of brass, and her attendants ride a huge phallus around the famed lothario as if it were a mechanical bull in “Urban Cowboy.” The composer Richard Wagner, whose work was greatly sponsored by Liszt, literally becomes a vampire and sucks the life’s blood and inspiration out of Franz. As demented as these scenes are, their over-the-top presentation batter home the significant events of Liszt’s life in an unconventional, hard-to-forget manner. Hey, who cares about nuance in a Russell film?

Roger Daltrey of the Who, having made his acting debut earlier in the year in Russell’s “Tommy,” (“Tommy” was released in March; “Lisztomania” in October) seems completely lost in this film. With line delivery like, “Oy, hang on then” bleated out, there seemed to be no attempt on his part to capture Liszt’s Hungarian roots. Even though he scowls a few times, Daltrey spends much of the film tossing his curly locks and flashing his pearly white smile to match the keys on his glittery piano. Strangely enough, those moments when he should seem comfortable performing a song are times, in fact, where he appears to be horribly overacting. Since Russell has stated, “I don’t talk to my actors much,” the assumption is Roger was left to his own novice choices in how to play the character of Liszt.

Ringo Starr makes an appearance as a deadpan Pope and practically steals the show in his understated line delivery. Sometime-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman composed the overblown, Moog-heavy score for the film and had Daltrey singing deep lyrics like “Now that love has won, we’ll live in peace at last.” And if you look closely enough, one can catch a glimpse of Pete Townshend’s face as a saint in Princess Carolyne’s court.

In general, Russell tends to let his scenes go on for far too long and the lack of compelling plot brings out many yawns. A Charlie-Chaplin vignette with Daltrey writing love songs in the form of hearts to his Countess is extremely tedious. The recycled motif of dancing naked nymphs and huge phalluses starts to feel limp after a while. And all of this symbolic build-up finally whirls apart in a chaotic, nonsensical meltdown when Wagner is resurrected as a Thor-like Frankenstein monster, accompanied by Hitler youth in Friedrich Nietzchian-Superman costumes, mowing down Jews with his machine gun-guitar, only to be stopped by a dive-bombing Liszt in a makeshift cathedral organ-jet plane.

Yep, you can’t say Russell’s vision isn’t original.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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