Even Ken Russell fans tend to shy away from Lisztomania (1975). It is seen as the point where Russell goes ‘too far’ and collapses into self-parody. Audiences seem uncomfortable with many aspects of the film, perhaps most of all with the idea that he takes the classic Russell subject - the life of a great composer - but films it in the rock opera style of Tommy (1975), his previous and most financially successful film.
Being a Ken Russell fan has tended to mean being a Ken Russell apologist. That the director of sensitive films like Song of Summer: Frederick Delius (1968) and Women in Love (1969) later made a movie in which Roger Daltrey rides around on a giant penis while singing, is seen as the degeneration of a once promising talent. Lisztomania comes almost at the end of Russell’s run of fairly big-budget, successful 1970s movies - The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), Tommy - and the critical savaging it received might explain why Russell made very few interesting films thereafter. Like some gaudy, camp Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and got so badly burnt that he was forced to go to Hollywood and make Altered States (1980).
In the popular imagination, Russsell’s films are full of bizarre fantasy sequences featuring religious imagery, over-literal visual metaphors and copious nudity. Lisztomania certainly delivers on those fronts. As a young ‘cult cinema’ enthusiast, I found it easy to fall in love with the film, while at the same time realising how very silly it was. The problem is that, because Lisztomania is intentionally absurd, it gives plenty of ammunition to those who tar the rest of Russell’s films with the same brush. Russell’s reputation has plummeted in recent years, and the mainstream critical view suggests that it was all downhill after Women in Love. Important films were only made available on DVD many years into the format’s lifespan (Lisztomania, 2009; The Music Lovers, 2011; The Devils, 2012), and there is no legal way of viewing his 1960s BBC work apart from one overpriced region 1 box-set.
The key to rediscovering that Lisztomania has merits beyond knockabout comedy is in comparing it to Russell’s long-banned film about Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970). Like Lisztomania, it marks the end of a phase in Russell’s career (it was his last work for the BBC for more than 20 years); like Lisztomania, it equates classical music with Nazism; and like Lisztomania, it has no realistic scenes whatsoever.
The Strauss film is described as ‘A comic strip in seven episodes on the life of Richard Strauss’ and gives seven different versions of Strauss - the lover, the family man, the fawning Nazi collaborator, etc. It was the Nazi sequences that were most controversial, and led to Strauss’s family banning the film. The most disturbing sequence shows a Jewish couple being brutalised by Nazi thugs while Strauss plays his music louder and louder to drown out the screams. It is fairly sexually explicit for 1970 television and features a sequence where Strauss appears as a silent film star, Erich von Stroheim. It is also completely unrealistic - there is minimal dialogue, and it is as much ballet as straight drama. Strauss is played by dancer Christopher Gable, a Russell regular.
In this context, Lisztomania makes a lot more sense. While The Music Lovers or The Devils have unrestrained fantasy sequences, they are still coherent narratives with beginnings, middles and endings. Lisztomania is not. It is, in effect, a comic strip in nine or ten episodes on the life of Franz Liszt: the lover, the family man, the pop star, etc. Liszt appears as a silent film star (Chaplin), and the film is full of the kind of nudity that the BBC would never have been able to get away with. Just as in Seven Veils, the episodes are cartoony caricatures rather than realistic portrayals of episodes of Liszt’s life (something reflected in Lisztomania‘s most famous promotional poster). Laughing at Lisztomania for being unrealistic misses the point. The dialogue scenes are intended to seem just as unlikely as the scenes with singing Nazi children or giant penises.
Like in Seven Veils, the most contentious sequence links classical music and Nazism. Wagner - a musical vampire who drains inspiration from Liszt - is reborn as a Frankenstein Monster Hitler who murders Jews with a machine-gun guitar. Unlike the Strauss film, though, Litsztomania does not appear to make a serious point about Nazism and its relation to music. Wagner’s followers are portrayed as children, and Russell has found a similarity between Nazism’s fetishised hand gestures and those of pop music’s various dance crazes. But it feels more than a little adolescent, and Ken Russell was obviously far too intelligent to really believe that Wagner caused the Holocaust.
The main problems with Lisztomania are that it is badly paced (the early concert scene is close to interminable); and that, as Russell admits in the DVD commentary, it requires quite a lot of knowledge of Liszt and Wagner in order to ‘get’ the references. The target audience was probably the same people who had gone to see Tommy, not the best audience to appreciate jokes about Wagner sucking Liszt’s blood. This results in a film that feels like it was made for two separate audiences, neither of whom will fully appreciate it. And although it is easier to forgive clumsy dialogue scenes when you accept that they are probably intentionally clumsy, it does not make them any easier to sit through.
Perhaps Russell was a victim of his own excess. In his autobiography he claimed that the Rick Wakeman soundtrack was foisted on him by producer David Puttnam, who perhaps took it upon himself to nudge Russell into making a more archetypally ‘Ken Russell’ film than he had intended. Perhaps his great financial success with Tommy gave him a bit too much license to go over the top. In returning to the completely stylised filmmaking of Dance of the Seven Veils, but with fewer restraints on what he could show, Russell probably overdid it. A fantasy sequence loses its impact if there are no ‘straight’ sequences to compare it to.
Lisztomania is still extremely entertaining and does not ask to be taken too seriously. It feels unfair to dismiss it as the point Ken Russell degenerated into silliness. It perhaps marks the point where he had done everything he could with a certain style of film, just as Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination of his BBC work. Lisztomania is a similar bridge-burning effort, after which Russell would be forced to find something new. That it was followed by a frustrating period in Hollywood and then a long, slow decline is sad, but it is commendable that he struck off in other directions, rather than just making Tommy clones for the next ten years.
Lisztomania will probably never rank among the best Ken Russell films; the pace is too uneven and the comedy a bit too ridiculous. But it has some merits beyond just being the funny one with the giant penis, the Wagner Nazis and Ringo Starr.