by Jay Seaver
Some people will tell you that the 1970s were a golden age in film because of the gritty, character-based, challenging films that directors were able to produce during that period, and they wouldn't be completely wrong. However, when you talk about artistic freedom, you have to remember that it cuts both ways, and the same environment that got "Taxi Driver" made also meant that someone at Warner Brothers signed a check that gave Ken Russell the money to make something as gloriously insane as "Lisztomania".Russell's biographical picture of Franz Liszt starts off from a reasonable enough premise - that in the nineteenth century, composers and virtuoso pianists like Liszt were their day's equivalent of rock stars, So Russell gets an actual rock star (Roger Daltry) to play Liszt, and one of the first sequences is Liszt backstage at his recital, which is as full of topless groupies, drugs, alcohol, wannabes looking for Liszt to play their compositions, and other hangers-on as any modern-day rock concert. Now, Russell isn't actually saying that things happened just like what he's showing, but metaphorically, they're today's equivalent. If you can't get down with the idea that everything on-screen is an exaggerated metaphor for Liszt's real life, stop reading this review and don't bother seeing this if it ever shows up on video or some crazy rep house shows it. You won't like it.
"A biography of a great 19th Century musician - with a Nazi vampire cult!"
Heck, even if you are down with that idea, you may not like the way Russell plays it out. The movie starts with Liszt enjoying the pleasures of a local count's wife, Marie d'Agoult (Fiona Lewis). When Count d'Agoult (John Justin) shows up, he chases Liszt around the bedchamber with a sword while the soundtrack features a Hee Haw-worthy bluegrass banjo balladeer. It ends with Liszt and Fiona sealed in a piano and placed in front of an oncoming train, but they survive for the film to pick up some dozen or so years later, when they've got three children but still cannot marry, and remember happier times in a Chaplin-inspired montage. From there, Liszt is summoned by Princess Carolyn (Sara Kestelman) while on a tour of Russia, and takes up with her after a set piece with a truly astonishing amount of phallic imagery. She petitions the Vatican for a divorce from her husband to marry Liszt, but the Pope (Ringo Starr) offers an unenthusiastic Liszt an alternative - become an abbey, which has the same duties as a priest but not the pesky celibacy requirement; Liszt, who had trained to be a man of the cloth, agrees. But eventually, the Pope has a mission for Abbey Liszt - thwart the plans of Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), who has appropriated some of Liszt's music. If not, Liszt's tainted music may never be played in churches again.
It is part of the historical record that Liszt and Wagner had a strained relationship after Wagner married Liszt's daughter Cosima (Veronica Quilligan) without Cosima first obtaining an annulment from the Catholic Church for her first marriage. What conventional history does not tell you, however, is that Wagner was a Nazi vampire mad scientist. The last segment is over-the-top and absurd to a degree that makes the previous hour to hour and a half seem reserved. And yet, it also contains one of the sweetest moments of the entire movie, where angelic representations of Cosima, Marie, Carolyn, and all the other women in Liszt's life note that for all the flaws and imperfections in their lives, and how they may have hurt Franz (and vice versa), the part of them that will live on through Liszt's music will always be beautiful and loving. And then they... Well, I won't spoil the final act of insanity.
Anyway, "irreverent" would be severely understating the case when applied to Lisztomania. It's crazily anachronistic, taking inspiration from rock & roll, Chaplin, monster movies, comic books, and anything else that Russell can get his hands on. Many of Liszt's compositions have lyrics added to them to make them more like rock songs, both by Daltrey and Yes's Rick Wakeman, who creates the score (and appears in a throughly peculiar cameo). The music is all over the map, but matches whatever Russell is doing on screen at the moment. The same can be said for the production design, which is often some type of pastiche and, along with the action, is big and loud. There's nothing minimalist about Ken Russell's style, but it's well-utilized excess.
It's a fun cast. Daltrey isn't much of an actor, but his somewhat befuddled look fits the action. Paul Nicholas chews scenery and spits it out as Wagner, with his character getting more and more ridiculous as the film goes on. Sara Kestelman and Fiona Lewis are enjoyable both as lovers and as sources of comedy. There's a delightful initial innocence to Veronica Quilligan's Cosima - she clearly adores her father, even as his relationship with the rest of his family is falling apart - that seeing her joining with Wagner and treating her father with disdain toward the end is legitimately heartbreaking in the midst of a very silly movie. Amusing turns by Ringo Starr and cameos by Russell favorites like Oliver Reed and Kenneth Colley make for a fun easter egg hunt."Lisztomania" is the third of what I'm told is an increasingly surreal series of musical biographies Russell made in the 1970s. Even without having seen "The Music Lovers" and "Mahler", I'm impressed by the achievement. It's a thoroughly entertaining biography whose liberties are so incredible that they may inspire further research, just to figure out what inspired THAT bit of lunacy.
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originally posted: 06/18/06 21:21:49