What follows is my contribution to the Blogathon hosted by Philip Tatler IV at his apparently ever-name-changing film site.
I had rather high hopes for the almost universally reviled 1975 gonzo biopic of composer pianist Franz Liszt as I prepared to view it in full for the first time. Celebrity culture is, we perceive, even more over-the-top today than it was in the 1970s or the 1840s, so I thought it entirely possible that the film, directed by Ken Russell very shortly after his wrapping what would be his pretty-commercially-successful film of The Who's "rock opera" Tommy, might demonstrate a certain prescience viewed in 2015.
But no, actually. Lisztomania remains fixed in its time a two-pronged demonstration of both amusingly wretched excess and what a resourceful and fortunate mad artiste could get away with as a studio-sponsored filmmaker during one decade in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Ken Russell was a longtime music maven, one of exceptional taste and, yes, in some cases, prescience: he made a documentary short featuring Davy Graham all the way back in 1959. He gave John Corigliano his first film-scoring gig, for Altered States, in 1980. And so on. Even prior to his feature film examination of Tchaikovsky, 1970's The Music Lovers, Russell had an exceptional and idiosyncratic track record with respect to films on music and musicians, both documentary and fictionalized, largely produced by the BBC. (He cited one of these films, 1968's Delius: Song of Summer, as a personal favorite.) The film follows from the not inaccurate but facile observation that Franz Liszt was something like a 19th century rock star. (As it happens, the coinage "Lisztomania" was a contemporary one, invented by the poet Heinrich Heine.) Hence, one casts a real rock star, The Who's Roger Daltrey, to play super showman Franz. And, because he's Roger Daltrey, you have him flounce about with his shirt off quite a bit. You make an array of Romantic composers look like the after-party of an arena show, with plenty of vulgar and possibly anachronistic dialogue: “Liszt, my dear fellow—" “Oh piss off Brahms." Then you...
Then you what? Russell seems to have not put a lot of really coherent thought into his screenplay, and the film plays out like a series of Russell-lized sketches from Liszt's life, with half-hearted but ticcy pastiche largely ruling the day, as in a depiction of Liszt's child-producing years that see Daltrey donning a Little Tramp uniform, complete with Chaplin mustache. While his sense of story construction, such as it is, abandons him, Russell's musicological chops stay somewhat keen albeit increasingly deranged. Russell really, really, really doesn't like Wagner. The fellow first turns up in a sailor's cap with Nietzsche's name circling its brim, arrogant but nevertheless flattered by Liszt's attention and compliments. But he walks out of a Liszt recital after seeing Franz scatter some Wagner themes into his musical extrapolations only to constantly fall back on the teeny-bopper-fan-pleasing "Chopsticks," Liszt's big hit single. Wagner: The First Rockist, apparently.
Interestingly, it's Wagner, played with stalwart conviction if no particular insight by Paul Nicholas (again, I must insist that what he's given to work with would have flummoxed Daniel Day-Lewis), who gets the most personality here, hopping from petulant student to Dr. Frankenstein to Dracula to Hitler in less than an hour and fifty, while Daltrey's Liszt is a strutting mooncalf with a May Pole-sized dick. (That's not meant metaphorically. There really is a scene in which he grows a giant phallus, and his female coterie do a May dance, or something, around it.)
One of said coterie is played by Nell Campbell, and she is in several scenes dressed pretty much identically to the way she is in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. See her in this chorus line, third from left.
The movie actually has a great number of what I'll kindly call affinities with the London stage version of Rocky Horror and its subsequent film. Campbell was in both, and her uninhibited work as the "groupie" Columbia won her a small cult that grew sufficiently to propel her to Texas-Guinan-style heights in '80s New York night life. Rocky Horror Picture Show was shot, very nicely, by Peter Suschitzky, who I dare say must have felt a more than slight case of deja vu while working on Lisztomania, to which he contributes many beautiful vistas Not just due to Campbell's presence but the lifting of the Frankenstein's monster conceit. In Rocky Horror Dr. Frank N. Furter uses Universal monster movie methods to create his ultimate dumb hunk, Rocky. In Lisztomania Wagner does the same thing, albeit with a higher budget and more elaborate production design, to create his Siegfried, the hero of the Ring cycle and Germany's redeemer. The punchline of Russell's joke is that he cast Rick Wakeman, the prog-rock keyboard hero who oversaw the movie's soundtrack, as Siegfried, and dressed him in a Thor Halloween costume or something (I think it's too late to sue, Marvel Studios). Wakeman's kind of lanky and soft, nobody's idea of an ubermensch, and the first thing he does on stepping off the lab's slab (in platform boots, no less) is quaff a stein of pilsener and belch. Is this some kind of clever anti-nationalist joke, or just a bunch of drunkards taking the incoherent piss?
For better or worse, it's most probably the latter, and the joke truly curdles after Wagner rises from the grave brandishing an electric-guitar-machine-gun and shooting down cartoonish skullcapped Jews in a backlot ghetto.
The pop-art trappings of this period of Russell film are sometimes deemed psychedelic but their garishness and incoherence are more truly representative of the alcoholic bender. Lisztomania is certainly a curious film, and very watchable in its curiousness, but it's ultimately a hectoring film. It's like you met a guy at a bar and he was telling you some interesting stuff—"That's pretty fascinating, that you should find a similarity between Cosima Wagner and Kundry in Parsifal!"— but then there's that one-too-many point that you now can't put your finger on, and suddenly you're stuck under the table with the guy and he's telling you his tab has run out and you've got to spot him something.