Appellate Judge Tom Becker wishes Ken Russell had lived to make his epic World War II musical, Schindler's Lisztomania.
The erotic, exotic, electrifying rock fantasy…it out-Tommys Tommy!
In order to really enjoy Ken Russell's Lisztomania, the following conditions and aspects should converge:
1. You should be really high.
Lisztomania is the kind of garish, excessive, audio/visual spectacular for which director Ken Russell is remembered. While Russell's best films, arguably, are his less bombastic works (Altered States, Women in Love), his legacy seems rooted in opulent, indulgent, and occasionally incoherent films like Tommy and The Devils.
Like Tommy, Lisztomania is a rock film starring Roger Daltrey; unlike Tommy, it didn't have a populist precedent (the album by The Who), nor does it have a manageable through line; also, its "rock score" is re-imagined classical music.
Ostensibly a biography of composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Russell pulls episodes from Liszt's life and creates elaborate, fictitious vignettes. Some of these are entertaining, but as the film goes on, the lack of any real cohesion becomes grating, and the whole thing ends up coming off like a stoner party game.
Much of the film revolves around Liszt's relationship with Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas, The Jazz Singer), who runs around in a sailor suit with a hat that says "Nietzsche." He later becomes a vampire, marries Liszt's daughter, Cosima, indoctrinates children into a Third Reich prototype community, and builds an Aryan robot. While I don't think all of this is true (though he did really marry Cosima), it could be a thought-provoking artistic evaluation of Wagner's influence on Nazi Germany.
Only, Russell burlesques everything so much there seem to be few thoughts to be provoked. He'd already done two non-traditional biopics of classical musicians (The Music Lovers and Mahler) as well as a rock opera, and Lisztomania must have seemed a perfect melding project.
The focus of the Lisztomania is lavish production numbers and bare-breasted women. The breasts look uniformly terrific, but the production numbers are more hit-or-miss. The music of Liszt and Wagner is repurposed as rock spectacle with arrangements by Rick Wakeman, with most of the vignettes built around the music.
Visually, virtually any segment of the film could stand on its own. The most impressive—and infamous—is the sequence in which Liszt meets Princess Carolyn of Russia (Sara Kestelman, Zardoz). It begins with Liszt being confined in a "fumigation room" (where noxious gas is expelled from plastic anuses affixed to the walls); moves on to Liszt being ordered to dress in drag by the princess, who has him sign his soul away for the chance to write more beautiful music; and then has Liszt sucked into a giant vagina, after which he's accosted by adoring women whom he soothes with his music, and then gets a giant (10 to 15 foot) erection, which inspires a dance number; it all ends with Carolyn guillotining his huge penis. It's an exhausting sequence, and exhilarating, vulgar yet clever and arresting.
Unfortunately, for all its visual inventiveness, the film has no core. There are too many jokey moments—like casting Ringo Starr as the Pope—and by the time we get to the business of Wagner and Cosima conspiring to make the German master race, the whole thing starts to look like a knock off of Phantom of the Paradise. It's a lot of style but little substance, and the effect is of being bombarded with little in the way of enlightenment.
Lisztomania is being released through Warner Archive, which is good and bad news. The good news is that it's on DVD. The bad news is…pretty much everything else. While the standard definition 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is acceptable looking, it's clearly not remastered; it's also letterboxed. Audio is a so-so Dolby 2.0 Stereo track. There are no supplements, though Lisztomania could really use some context. Although there's no Scene Selection menu option, the disc sports an insane 34 chapter stops, so it takes almost as long to fast forward through the film as it does to watch it. For some reason, many of the chapter stops seem arbitrarily placed, jumping to the middle of scenes rather than marking specific chapters.
Some people will find Lisztomania to be adventurous, artistic, and unique. I just don't happen to be one of them. I'm sure it was all "shocking" in its day, particularly the plethora of sexual imagery, but the film hasn't aged well. Time has caught up to Lisztomania just as it has so many other "youth films" of the '60s and '70s. Maybe a stronger release with some supplemental material would have helped me appreciate this more, but the release from Warner Archive is little more than a digitized VHS.
By the way, I'm not knocking Warner Archive. Without them and the other MOD (Made on Demand) outlets, plenty of second-tier titles would likely never see the light of digital day.
Like so many of Russell's films, Lisztomania is an acquired taste. Fans of the director will want to check it out, but everyone else might find it a bit tiresome.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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