The title sounds like it popped right from writer and director Ken Russell’s fetid imagination, but Lisztomania was a real thing; apparently fans of the 19th century composer were driven wild by his incendiary sound, and created a mania that rivals any of today’s pop-culture phenomena. This 1975 crime-scene saw Russell’s relentless band-wagon of composer biopics derailed in sensational fashion; even if you’re expecting a folly, this still something that exceeds expectations of excess.
Controversy much? Russell ate controversy for breakfast, but unlike his work on Women in Love, The Boyfriend and The Devils, he wasn’t working from someone else’s paradigm, but let loose with his own ideas. Giving Ken Russell carte blanche is like handing a chimp a loaded bazooka, and the results strain credulity. The Who’s Roger Daltrey, fresh from the excesses of Tommy, plays the composer, very much in the style of a 1970’s pop star. Russell seems to feel that Liszt’s story needed a bit of jazzing up, so he throws in vampires, voodoo, sex, Ringo Starr as a Liverpudlian Pope, Rick Wakeman as Thor, and every kitchen sink item that producer David Putnam could organise. The final scenes features Liszt coming down from heaven in a Flash Gordon space-ship and destroying Wagner’s unholy creation, a creature called FrankenHitler, powered by music and armed with a guitar-machine-gun. Historical accuracy is not on the menu.
A deliberate travesty, Lisztomania is arguably peak Russell, packed with striking images and questionable scenes. Liszt rides around on a giant phallus, a piano explodes when hit by a train on a railway line; the audience duck and cover to avoid the next display of the director’s virtuosity. Pretty much everyone involved decried the result, and quickly moved on, but the folly lived on in battered VHS tapes. This is pure vulgarity, an apex of 70’s trash cinema, and yet a vital and fertile piece of cinematic garbage, reeking of pretention and mad, uncontrolled film-making talent misapplied.
Using anamorphic lenses for once, Russell presents a true phantasmagoria here, a parade of gibberish that says more about the director and his era that Liszt himself. We don’t look for history from Russell, we expect madness, and Lisztomania is the real deal, a benchmark for cinematic excess that should spark awe, revulsion and amusement in all who see it.