THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Everything you need to know about 1975's Lisztomania can be found in the first scene. The film opens with a shot of a diamond-encrusted metronome. Franz Liszt, played by The Who's Roger Daltrey, kisses a naked woman's breasts in time with the metronome's ticks. The woman reaches up to make it tick faster, causing Liszt to speed up his kisses until he almost can't do it anymore. He then gets into a sword fight with the woman's aristocratic husband. After winning the fight, the husband binds Liszt and his wife to the inside of a piano, which he then has placed in front of a speeding locomotive. Welcome to director Ken Russell's over-the-top, highly sexualized take on a classical music legend.
The film portrays Liszt in a period setting, but with all the trappings of a modern-day rock star: concert tour, screaming fans, groupies, etc. When he gets onstage to play the piano, it's almost like when the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The story, such as it is, concerns Liszt's unhappy marriage, his rivalry with fellow composer Richard Wagner, and the way he sells his soul to achieve musical prominence. In one of the more intriguing twists, some famous Liszt and Wagner melodies are given lyrics, which Daltrey sings intermittently.
To say this film is outrageous would be an understatement. You get Ringo Starr playing the Pope. Phallic imagery is everywhere. At one point, there's a scene in which Wagner, having been transformed into a Franken-Hitler, mows down a street full of Jewish people with an electric guitar/machine gun while being trailed by an army of little girls in superhero costumes. (Now there's something you don't see every day!) Russell clearly delights in his bizarre and occasionally shocking imagery. He does it with a sense of humor, though. Look carefully during one sequence and you'll see Liszt getting dressed behind a shade adorned with pictures of Pete Townsend.
The musical numbers are as varied as they are outlandish. One surprisingly touching number is an homage to Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush. Another finds five half-naked women simultaneously straddling Liszt's engorged, 10-foot long penis. Whoever designed this particular prop deserved an Oscar. My favorite is the science fiction-inspired closing number, a sequence that will delight fans of Flash Gordon (which was released five years later). Russell shows a great amount of creativity with his staging, giving each production number its own unique feel.
Lisztomania is one of those gloriously bizarre '70s rock operas, like Tommy and The Phantom of the Paradise, that combine thumping music with trippy imagery and a healthy dose of naughtiness. I was too young to see films like this theatrically when they first debuted, but I love hopping into the home video time machine to catch them. I really enjoyed not knowing where Lisztomania would go from minute to minute. Russell has no use for cinematic “rules” or conventions, instead following his whimsy wherever it leads him. His movie is oddly beautiful and often quite funny. While it may lack narrative sense, this is, without a doubt, one of the most unpredictable and hypnotic viewing experiences you could ever hope to have.
Lisztomania is available from Warner Archive. It's been beautifully remastered, so that it looks exquisite. For more information, or to order a copy, visit the official website.
( out of four)
Lisztomania is rated R for some sexual context and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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