Lisztomania DVD review

Possibly Ken Russell's barmiest film - and that's a competitive arena - finally hits DVD…


They certainly don’t make them like they used to.  Mad genius Ken Russell’s Lisztomania has been long out of print, and is now released by Digital Classics as a bare-bones DVD. The result is no lost classic, but it bursts with ambiguous inspiration and undeniable, indulgent excess.

Lisztomania is ostensibly a biographical picture of the notable 19th century composer and pianist, Franz Liszt (here played by erstwhile Who vocalist Roger Daltry). It follows his superstardom as a concert maestro, his numerous affairs, his desire to compose serious work, and his friendship with fellow radical Richard Wagner. However, Russell uses this tangible historical basis as an ever-diminishing basis for his expressionistic flourishes and barmy flights of fancy.

To rate this film in concordance with the current mode of film-reviewing method – acting, scripting, narrative coherence – would be a pointless endeavour. For the most part, Lisztomania fails as a traditional movie experience. Daltrey heads a cast that root their performances in camp and pantomime, which supports the film’s absurdism, but derails its attempts at depth and complexity.

Equally, the score, integral to such a musically-minded piece, is mostly fumbled, with Liszt pieces turned into elaborate musical moments (with added lyrics and vocals by Daltrey in powerful Who mode), or buried in overwrought rock-prog arrangements by Rick Wakeman.

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Nevertheless, Lisztomania begins as an interesting twist on musical biography, with the easy-to-promote theme of Liszt as a 19th century rock star. He plays to screaming audiences who quash any attempts at original composition, who instead want to hear ‘Chopsticks’ over and over, which leads to a cheeky rendition of Wagner’s Rienzi overture mixed with hints of that more sweet melody.

The superstar performs with a vacant grin, whilst pointing out promising beauties for his assistant to groom for that evening’s post-gig recreation. There are also trippy winks to the muso-geeks in the crowd, with a whiplash-inducing scene where every notable composer of the period gets brief screen-time or a mention – from Mendelssohn, a wiry old codger, to Rossini, a fat food fetishist.

However, Lisztomania‘s true form soon reveals itself. It becomes reminiscent of Italian director Federico Fellini’s more indulgent films like Roma and Satyricon, where chronology, time and plotting seem elastic and uncertain, where fantasy and reality mix to dizzying degrees. However, Russell’s film is much more expressionistic, with huge stylistic deviations and side-glances.

One scene, where Liszt imagines courting Russian Princess Carolyn, and giving up touring to concentrate on his music, features Daltry rodeo-riding a gigantic prosthetic penis, which is eventually guillotined. Likewise, a reflective flash-back to young Liszt’s romance with his partner Marie d’Agoult is presented as a homage to Charlie Chaplin, complete with bowler hat, cane, and jerky projection speed.

But all this pales in comparison to the film’s final act, which brings together distinct visual cues from Frankenstein, Dracula and Metropolis as Wagner, electric bass in hand, foretells the coming of a super-man who will forge a Germanic empire. In a development that must be seen to be believed, Liszt literally blows Vamp-Wagner away with the power of his fiery piano playing — only for the proto-Nazi to rise from the grave at a swastika-themed funeral, now sporting a slick parting and distinctively precise moustache. Let loose in the Jewish quarter, he fires waves of bullets at shopkeepers and tradesmen from his machine gun / bass guitar combo, backed by an uncomfortably off-key synth rendition of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.

It’s a peculiar sort of mindfuck, is Lisztomania. It displays the same mad visionary genius as seen in the films of Fellini, or David Lynch, but has little of the qualities of Eraserhead or 8 1/2. More of a crackpot ‘experience movie’, perhaps. Maybe something to project onto the wall of your hipster apartment, and enjoy with a side order of perception-altering hors d’oeuvres.

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Otherwise, it serves as a maddeningly uneven, at times irritating and meandering example of unfettered imagination, inexplicably (and, to Russell’s credit, boldly) backed by studio money and unquestioning collaborators. But it’s almost worth it, just to subject others to its moments of transcendent insanity, and watch their jaws drop open.


2 stars
Extras: Trailer.

Lisztomania is available now.


2 out of 5