With the possible exception of The Devils (1971), which employs provocative imagery while telling a meaningful story about historical persecution, the musical biopic Lisztomania is British director Ken Russell’s most outrageous movie—no small accomplishment. Lisztomania is also one of the weirdest big-budget films ever made, since it contains a man riding a giant phallus like it’s a bucking bronco, composer Richard Wagner reincarnated as a machine-gun-wielding hybrid of Frankenstein’s monster and Adolf Hitler, and a climactic battle in which composer Franz Liszt flies a fighter jet built from organ pipes that blast his music like guided missiles. Not exactly Amadeus.
Based upon a real-life phenomenon that occurred during the career of 19th-century Hungarian composer Liszt, who reportedly drove audiences into something like the frenzied adoration later associated with 20th-century rock stars, Lisztomania opens in such a juvenile fashion that writer-director Russell makes it immediately clear he is uninterested in simply re-creating history. Liszt (Roger Daltrey) cavorts in bed with aristocrat Marie (Fiona Lewis), kissing her breasts in time with the clicks of a metronome. She repeatedly accelerates the metronome’s speed, so Liszt accelerates his smooching. Then Marie’s husband arrives, and a “comical” duel ensues, during which Liszt—clad only a s sheet he’s tied around his privates like a diaper—tries to evade the rapier with which the husband hopes to castrate Liszt. From camera angles to editing and music, the whole scene is designed to feel like a cartoon, setting the childish tone for everything that follows.
In the course of telling a story that’s only vaguely connected to the real Lizzt’s experiences, Russell portrays Liszt as a debauched celebrity pandering to public appetites with performances that are beneath his talent, while also spending much of his private time bouncing from one woman’s bedroom to the next. Liszt’s sexual wanderings climax with a fantasy sequence during which Liszt grows the aforementioned Godzilla-sized erection—which, at one point, several women straddle simultaneously.
As the movie drags on, the plot grows to similarly oversized proportions. On instructions from the Pope (played by Ringo Starr of the Beatles), Liszt is charged with luring his former colleague, Wagner (Paul Nicholas), back to Christianity. This doesn’t go well, because Wagner has become an evil scientist preoccupied with bringing the Norse god Thor (Rick Wakeman) to life, although Thor, for some reason, wears the costume associated with the version of the character appearing in Marvel Comics of the ’60s and ’70s. Sprinkled amid this nonsense are various scenes in which Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who and the star of Russell’s previous film, Tommy (released a few months earlier in 1975), sings original rock songs. There’s more, too, including a scene decorated with ceramic buttocks that issue smoke through their—you get the idea.
One imagines that Russell had a grand old time generating concepts and then seeing if his production team could realize them without quitting in protest of his bad taste. Furthermore, actors play their roles with tremendous glee. However, the level of stupidity on display throughout Lisztomania is staggering. Whereas Russell’s best films are the work of a sophisticated provocateur, Lisztomania feels more like the bathroom-wall scratchings of a 13-year-old boy who giggles whenever the subject of sex is raised. Suffice to say, Russell’s lifelong devotion to classical music found more worthwhile expression elsewhere.