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Ken Russell, one of my favorite directors, is such a excessive
filmmaker that some of his movies fall victim to his own style (Gothic
). OR they take on such an aura of their own bizarreness that
they become a masterful spectacle to behold (The Devils ).
Lisztomania falls into the latter category, and it proves to be one of
his most enjoyable films. As can be said about most of Russell's films,
it is not clear whether or not he was sane while making it. But the
basic premise, that Franz Lizt (Roger Daltrey) was the "rock star" of
his time, is an original and interesting idea. Many have complained of
Roger Daltrey's acting, but in a movie this campy (and having recently
viewed Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith), his performance is not only
adequate, but actually quite good.
This is one of those movies that has everything. Classical music, rock-and-roll, fantasy, hallucinations, vampires, Frankenstein, nudity, sex, rape, castration, a giant penis, and Ringo Starr as the pope. Some of these scenes are actually quite breathtaking. Liszt's arrival at the queen's palace recall's Ivan the Terrible and the fantasy sequences are equally good. The best scene in the movie is a long, drawn out fantasy interlude that is essentially an homage to Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush". It is a clear sign of Russell's love for the medium of film in general.
As with most of Russell's movies, the sudden changes in tone can often be unsettling. The film goes from a musical to a vampire flick, and from lurid pornography to comedy in the drop of a hat. Many of the special effects (such as the spaceship at the end) are intentionally hokey, and the rock music is unbelievably dated, but this actually makes it a more enjoyable experience. The movie is safely sealed in its own time capsule (there is no doubt in my mind that a film like this would never get made today, at least not on the same kind of budget).
Ken Russell was one of the most celebrated art-house directors when Lisztomania came out. The movie proved to be critic-proof, but it probably could not be described as "successful". Sadly, after the failure of Valentino (1977), Russell started a slow descent into obscurity. Altered States (1980) proved to be a success, but he refused to do any more science-fiction thereafter. Most of his 80's films were increasingly excessive, but none of them reached the enjoyably loony levels of Lisztomania.
It is hard to believe that Ken Russell was able to get this one "green-lighted" for release by a major American distributer as it is quite simply one of the strangest films to ever grace a screen! Russell, ever the visionary, takes the not so off-target view that Franz Liszt the pop star of his day and then offers viewers a comic book version of the composer's life and relationship with several infamous women and, most importantly, Richard Wagner. This film must be seen to be believed! And is a definite must-see for all Russell fans. It will also be appreciated by Roger Daltrey fans as this one captures Daltrey in his prime! Interesting musical work by Rick Wakeman and great set designs. It would be so cool to see this on DVD with director commentary! ...Maybe some day.
Where else are you going to find a movie about famous composers,
Frankenstein, Thor, Hitler, Superman, a lich, cigars, vampires, philosophy,
perversion, papacy, war, love, Charlie Chaplin, and heaven? And where else
will you see a penis kick line? This movie removes the need for
mind-altering drugs. Seeing it is a trip unto itself.
To many, this film is the stunning-proof that director Ken Russell
never had it, and that idiocy and egotism were mistaken for genius. You
could say mistaking idiocy and egotism for genius has been the appeal
of rock music! Others might say that Russell is simply childish or
immature, and that his films are the "masturbatory-fantasies" of an
overgrown-adolescent. This belief is unfounded. Is this film
over-indulgent? Yes it is, dear readers, very-much-so, because it is
art, not entertainment. That-said, if you chuck any expectations, this
is a funny film and allegory about the rise of pop-culture in the 19th
Century. It draws parallels between Liszt's fame with the other
generally-hollow spectacle known as "rock." This is great film-making,
and it should be noted that it has similarities between itself and
"Rocky Horror," and even "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," as they all
examine and explore the relationships between sexuality and pop-culture
in similar-areas. It really is true that women threw their underwear at
Franz Liszt during his performances, and that he had many-many
Lisztomania is an odd bridge-between "classic" rock and the emergent punk-movement of the time. The film can also be seen as a statement that "rock" is not really subversive or rebellious at-all, but ultimately arch-conservative, and repressive. Amen. It's just a hilarious, wild-romp that will make your guests extremely nervous, which films should do. Movies should challenge people to think and reflect--at-least occasionally. Ironically (or maybe-not!), Mr. Russell had contracted Malcolm MacLaren and Vivienne Westwood to design the S&M-costumes for his film, "Mahler." It should also-be-noted that "Liszt-o-Mania" was released exactly the same year that MacLaren's shop "SEX" opened on King's Row, the rest is as they say, is history. It couldn't be more camp, it has Little Nell in it.
Basically-put, this is about the the ins-and-outs of "why" we want and need pop-culture, and WHAT we generally-want from our "pop-idols" (sex, of-course). One could easily-say this film criticizes the absurd spectacle that rock had become by 1975, and we get this quite-often in the film. But this theme goes much-deeper, into the relationship-between artist and patron (once, just the aristocracy, now the mob is added). The sexuality is about mass-psychology, too, so Wilhelm Reich gets-his-due, and there is a plethora of Freudian-imagery. It is certainly a very-personal film for Russell, and probably amuses him as much as it does myself that it enrages so-many critics, but it should be noted that some of the absurdity and excess came from the producer of the film, not Mr. Russell. Ken Rusell enrages all the right-people, and that's what some film-making should be.
God love this lapsed-Catholic, and God love his ways. A flawed part of his canon, but very watchable and educational. As Russell began his career doing documentaries and impressionistic-films on composers for the BBC, it makes-sense that this is considered one of his most heretical-works. He complains about the opening country-song in his autobiography 'Altered States', and there were other aspects of the production he didn't want in the film. It's interesting to note that the 1980s was the period of his purest-work, due mainly to a three-picture-deal with Vestron. The 1970s were actually a very mixed-bag for him, as Lisztomania attests. He isn't entirely-pleased with it, but had some fun with the material, and there it is. I think it's a hoot, which means it isn't on DVD.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you're tuning into Lisztomania hoping to find a biographical account
of this remarkable composer, you're bound to be left bewildered and
probably somewhat disappointed. For this is Ken Russell at his most
self-indulgent, and anyone who knows Ken Russell will know that means a
film of extraordinary vulgarity, obscenity, sexual innuendo, phallic
imagery, anti-Nazism and more. Instead of telling the story in
true-to-the-fact style, Russell has written and directed a film that
relies upon allegory, metaphor and fantasy to point its message. For
example, in real life Liszt was very popular with the public in
Russell's version Liszt puts on pop-star style concerts, complete with
screaming female fans. The real Liszt was a confident womaniser to
symbolise this, Russell has him riding a twelve foot rubber penis over
a bevy of scantily clad, open-legged women toward a giant guillotine
that is used to sever his over active member! Liszt also had a strained
relationship with fellow composer Richard Wagner (who married Liszt's
eldest daughter) in Russell's twisted vision Wagner is portrayed as a
vampire possessed by the Devil, who dies only to be brought back to
life as a Hitler-Frankenstein hybrid who shoots Jews with a machine gun
disguised as a guitar (!)
Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey) gives a bravura performance at a concert for his army of adoring female fans. Part of the concert features music written by a young upcoming musician named Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas). After the concert, Liszt is confronted by his mistress Marie (Fiona Lewis), who is irritated by her lover's continual unfaithfulness with other women. Before leaving his mistress for yet another concert this time in Russia Liszt is asked by his daughter Cosima (Veronica Quilligan) to write a romantic piece for her mother in order to repair their damaged relationship. Liszt foolishly states that he would sell his soul for the opportunity to do so and later gets his wish, when he meets up once more with Wagner, who by now has become the Devil and who vampirises Liszt. During his absence his mistress and two youngest children are killed in fighting in their native Hungary, so Liszt seeks love with a Russian princess, but their marriage plans are scuppered when the church refuses to grant her a divorce. Liszt is visited by the Pope (Ringo Starr), who tells him that the only way he can find meaning and value in his life is by tracking down his old acquaintance Wagner and casting out the Devil in him.
Don't say you weren't warned! A brief skim through this plot synopsis shows that Lisztomania is far from your average historical bio-pic. Daltrey is unable to carry the picture as the eponymous subject, but he is at least not as embarrassing as Starr, the Liverpudlian-accented Pope, nor Nicholas, the scenery-chewing, wide-eyed Wagner (these two performances are stunning in their awfulness). Better work is done by Lewis as Liszt's suffering mistress she is terrific in a weirdly fascinating scene showing the rise and fall of her relationship with Liszt, done in the style of a Chaplin silent movie. Also, young Quilligan is surprisingly effective and creepy as his voodoo practising daughter. Russell shows no restraint whatsoever, and indulges in some of the most vulgar and tasteless sequences of his vulgar and tasteless career, but his visual assault does at least manage to convey some powerful cinematic images. These startling images alone are not enough to make Lisztomania a good film, but it can certainly be viewed on the level of a uniquely outrageous failure.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ken Russell has seldom contributed anything that would pass for normal cinematic fare, and God bless him for that! Here he reimagines the life of pianist Franz Liszt as a 19th centuury pop idol, and you'll swear that somebody laced your popcorn butter with windowpane acid before the running time is through! A little slow in parts, this is worth seeing for the myriad of insane images that assualt the viewer, the Rick Wakeman soundtrack, and the accurate but highly symbolic re-interpretation of Liszt's life. I know that spoilers are allegedly verboten, but how can you not love a movie that features a Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler? It only gets weirder, kids:a vaginal "fantastic voyage" sequence, a unique version of Wagner's DAS RHEINGOLD, and of course the infamous ten-foot wee wee. Be brave, and give it a chance!
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ken Russell's "Lisztomania" is such an off the wall movie that it makes
"Tommy" look like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood by comparison. Russell
assaults all the senses in this film that you leave it exhilarated and
mesmerized. This is a three ring cinematic circus and it makes no bones
Roger Daltrey stars as Liszt, or a bastardization of the composer. Russell himself has described his film as "fiction based on fact", so if you're seeing this for facts, go far far away.
If you're looking for a one of a kind experience, this is the film for you. Among the more outlandish sights we see in this film are a pope (Ringo Starr) wearing cowboy boots and a pirate patch, a papiermache penis ravaging the countryside and Wagner being resurrected as a Frankenhitler monster. If you think I'm providing spoilers, baby, this is nothing compared to the rest of the film, which I will leave you to discover.
You've probably figured out that "Lisztomania" is not for everyone (how could it be?). What it is is a highly original and stunning excursion into insanity. It's Ken Russell's best film (his credits include the brilliant but unsatisfying "Tommy", the underrated "The Devils", "The Music Lovers" and "The Boy Friend" in which he out-Busbys Berkley) and a true movie experience. The Academy, naturally, skipped this film for nominations, but how could they deny this a Best Director nod? It's all about direction, anyway.
**** out of 4 stars
This film is brilliant! Casting Roger Daltry (a rock star of his day) as Franz Liszt (a rock star of HIS day) was a master stroke (though Russell seemed to always like working with the same people again and again and he had done Tommy with Daltry). Ringo star in a cameo as the Pope was a crack-up and Wagner as a vampire stealing themes from Liszt was a trip as well. There is a wonderful "silent movie" section with Daltry doing a Chaplinesque sequence which covers several years in Switzerland and incredible sequences of him as a performer dazzling teeny-bopper girls in crinolines and bonnets--all screaming and swooning to whatever he plays. The piece-de-resistance is the sequence at the end with Liszt in a rocket ship "powered" by several former loves swooping down to destroy a Naziesque Wagnerian Frankenstein Monster who is laying waste to the world with an electric guitar/tommy-gun. This film is so over-the-top I had to have a copy for my collection!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After seeing this film one late night (and yes this film is best viewed late nite a la Rocky Horror Picture Show) I really thought it was cheesy and campy and therefore a treasure to some audiences. Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda in 1968 and the fore-mentioned Rocky Horror Picture Show of 1975 starring Barry Bostwick and Tim Curry were campy cult classics and this one is an addition to that repertoire. Ken Russell has done some good films, despite their use of bizarre imagery and cartoonish silliness- Mahler, Liar of the White Worm, The Devils and Tommy the musical. Lisztomania is at once a parody of film, using Rocky Horror Picture Show elements, and a fantasy of historical fiction. Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Cosima were all real people but in this film they exist as parody and as fictional characters akin to comic book characters. The theme seems to be the battle between good versus evil played out by two rival composers- Liszt and Wagner. In real life, these legendary composers were friends and found inspiration as colleagues. But in this comic book type of movie, Liszt (Roger Daltrev) fights the evil machinations of the Nazi vampire Richard Wagner bent on world domination. He creates a Frankenstein that resembles Hitler. It's up to Franz Liszt and friends to save the day by attacking him with their pipe organ spaceship. Lots of fun to watch. Other things to look for include a giant penis idol, a piano torture machine, Ringo Starr as the Pope and throughout the film is a rock musical style similar to Rocky Horror Picture Show. So if you liked that one, you'll like Lisztomania. Don't take it seriously. Not to be viewed by children.
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