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A send-up of the bawdy life of Romantic composer/piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, with ubiquitous phallic imagery and a good portion of the film devoted to Liszt's "friendship" with fellow composer Richard Wagner. The film begins during the time when Franz would give piano performance to a crowd of shrieking teenage fans while maintaining affairs with his (multiple!) mistresses. He eventually seeks Princess Carolyne of St. Petersburg (at her invitation), elopes, and, after their marriage is forbidden by the Pope, he embraces the monastic life as an abbé. Written by
Jonathan Dakss <email@example.com>
Is it true that when Liszt was a kid he played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata at a concert and the composer himself jumped up and kissed him?
Certainly Beethoven kissed the boy. By that time he was as deaf as a post.
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Love it or hate it, a film like nothing we've ever seen before
A wild, surreal, profane, provocative, bawdy, debauched, baroque, rock n' roll pop musical fantasy with anachronistic abstractions, Chaplin references and a depiction of the Golem as a lumbering Nazi Frankenstein wreaking havoc amidst a soundtrack of Wagnerian dread. Suffice to say, Lisztomania (1975) is as far from conventional cinema as you could possible get, illustrating Russell's further shift into more self-indulgent territory and away from his more sensitive earlier work with films such Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Delius; Song of Summer (1968) and the controversial Women in Love (1969). The seeds of Lisztomania can be seen in many of these films, in particular, in Russell's fairly unique way of seeing the past by way of the present; investigating historical figures, writers, artists and composers as if modern-day pop icons. Here, Russell takes that notion and applies it to an incredibly distinctive visual perspective that attempts to underpin the spiralling confusion of the artist's life and work in such a way as to be just as stimulating and sensory for the audience as it is for the character himself.
The style that Russell employs on Lisztomania is characteristic of the mid-to-late period of his career, featuring cluttered cinemascope compositions, a juxtaposition of various film speeds, colours and textures, a general mix of established actors, pop-stars and amateurs, a complete disrespect for the artist and their work, for the period in which the film is set and for the general accepted conventions of traditional, biographical film-making. Personally, I welcome the sense of anarchy; with Russell getting away from the clichés that ultimately lead to films like Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005) and presenting a film that is - for better or worse - completely unique. Once again, the approach that Russell adopts for Lisztomania can be seen in many of his preceding films, going as far back as his ultimate masterpiece The Devils (1971); a gloriously over-the-top, pop-art inspired political horror story with a fitting subversion of various religious iconography. This led on to his film about the artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier, which featured the same depiction of a historical figure as an almost Bob Dylan like revolutionary amidst scenes of perverse invention and screaming, pop-art expression.
Subsequent music-based features like the underrated Mahler (1974) and the financially successful version of The Who's celebrated "rock opera" Tommy (1975) continued the evolution of Russell from sensitive young provocateur to grand purveyor of lurid, over-the-top kitsch. Tommy is really the definite precursor to Lisztomania, not least because of the return of Roger Daltrey in the lead role, but in the almost kaleidoscopic fantasia of scenes within scenes creating miniature vignettes that propel the story in such a way as to suggest a compilation of music videos. The scenes of Liszt giving his first musical performance are reminiscent of the "Pinball Wizard" segment of the aforementioned film, whilst also showing the attempt by Russell to turn the composer into a 19th century Marc Bolan type figure, with inventive stage shows, manic energy, wild charisma and a packed stadium filled with screaming teenage girls waving scarves and blowing whistles. There's also some subtle comment on the music industry and the relationship between the artist and the press; reminding us that Lisztomania is, above all else, an absurdist satire.
Nonetheless, attempts to pigeonhole the film to a single genre will only lead to failure. If you approach Russell's work with a definite idea of what to expect you'll most probably be bitterly disappointed; with the film confounding all expectations and going against every pre-conceived notion of character, narrative, theme and subject to present a film that is part drug-induced hallucination, part schoolboy w*nk-fantasy. There are elements of science fiction, sex comedy, fantasy and war, and all tied together by Rick Wakeman's bold and subversive treatment of the music. The elements are blended together with a complete disregard for subtly, with outlandish Nazi iconography and apocalyptic despair juxtaposed against the recognisable conventions of the Universal horror movies of the 30's and 40's, alongside a continual reliance on mechanical phalluses, vaginal symbolism, high-speed sex scenes and Daltrey breaking the forth-wall like Timothy Lee in the "Confessions of..." series. If you can appreciate the idea of Fellini directing from a script by Benny Hill, then Lisztomania has a lot to offer. However, it is imperative that you approach Lisztomania on a visual level, as the aspects of script and performance are the factors that ultimately let the whole film down.
Playing a death, dumb and blind kid in Tommy was probably less of a stretch for Daltrey - who was already more than familiar with the subject matter of that particular film - however, as Liszt he's really unable to convey the dynamics of the character or indeed the ability to, well... act! It's clear that Russell's use of pop-stars in the lead roles was an ironic choice - leading into the actual presentation of the text - but the film desperately needed a more experienced and talented actor in the lead to really pull these separate elements together. With Daltrey the film becomes incredibly flawed, which is a shame, as it is obviously a bold, unique and energetic work; maybe even like nothing we've ever seen before! If you can overcome the poor performances, the reliance on visuals over text, and the flippant treatment of the actual historical elements presented by both the characters and the overall theme, then Lisztomania should offer a once in a lifetime, visual experience. If not, it will no doubt remain an unmitigated failure on all counts.
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