“Franz Liszt, now, he was such a randy old bloke. He really was a raver, did you know that? He was like a 19th‐century Mick Jagger.” So said the Who’s singer Roger Daltrey to the New York Times while he was shooting Lisztomania (1975) for director Ken Russell at Shepperton Studios in England. Lisztomania is an outrageously imaginative biopic of composer Franz Liszt, part of a series of classical composer films that Russell was making with producer David Puttnam of Goodtimes Enterprises.
Their first collaboration was on Mahler (1974), starring Robert Powell. There were talks of casting Al Pacino as Gershwin for the next feature but it failed to move forward. After the runaway success of Russell’s collaboration with the Who for Tommy (1975), the decision was made to turn the Franz Liszt film into another rock opera and cast Daltrey in the lead, with music written by Rick Wakeman from the progressive rock band Yes. It was also the first movie to use the new Dolby Stereo noise reduction sound system.
Russell was inspired by a quote from German writer Heinrich Heine that “Lisztomania” had broken out in Germany. Heine wrote, “How convulsively his mere appearance affected them! How boisterous was the applause which rang to meet him! A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!” Those lines reminded Russell of how crowds reacted to contemporary rock gods like the Who and the Rolling Stones. And so, Lisztomania envisions the composer as a self-indulgent rock star – the film proceeding in a series of decadent musical vignettes – his life turned into a dizzying bacchanal complete with a cameo from Ringo Starr as the Pope.
The impishly erotic tone is set from the beginning, where Liszt is introduced naked, in bed with writer Marie d’Agoult (pen name Daniel Stern – played with insouciance by Fiona Lewis), and then proceeds to get into a comically phallic swordfight with her husband (John Justin). Russell used d’Agoult’s 1846 novel Nélida, a semi-autobiographical account of her four-year affair with Liszt, as one of the inspirations for the movie. The film then segues into a series of flashbacks, as Liszt tumbles from bed-to-bed and cultivates a combative friendship with Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) – who in Russell’s comic book version of history turns into a Frankenstein’s monster of the Nazi party, an undead fiend gunning down the Jewish population with a submachine gun.
It’s raunchy, violent and gleefully willing to offend. The pop-synth soundtrack by Rick Wakeman channels the stage musical Rocky Horror Picture Show, though it failed to garner the same cult enthusiasm. Wakeman himself claims on his website that the soundtrack album “stinks”, saying that the production company took the tapes and mastered them without his approval, which was a “complete disaster” for him. Roger Daltrey, who had no dialogue in Tommy, seems a bit overwhelmed at starring in Lisztomania. He told the New York Times, “Before I made Tommy, I said to Russell, ‘You know, I’ve never acted in my life.’ I was worried sick, honest. I couldn’t believe it was happening. And now, I still don’t feel like I’ve done anything. I just did what Russell told me to do.”
Ken Russell, in a retrospective piece for The Times on the film’s UK DVD release, wrote that, “There are moments as I watch the film when I get a giddy, dizzy feeling that I am watching ‘live’ as Ken Russell, the promising director, vehemently and gleefully throws his heretofore victorious movie career away.” Of the six proposed composer features, only Mahler and Lisztomania were completed, the latter’s box-office failure ending the series. Lisztomania is one of Ken Russell’s films maudit, a “cursed film” that was ill-fated upon its original release but still finding new admirers 45+ years on. For it has the rare quality of being completely unconcerned with audience expectations, subverting them at every turn, and offering wild collisions of imagery you will see nowhere else – like Daltrey riding a giant penis, Ringo Starr appearing as the Pope in cowboy boots and Richard Wagner reanimating as an undead Nazi. That kind of wild and untrammeled imagination will find its audience, even if it takes 50 years.