My mother was a music teacher for decades, and had a special love of movies featuring the lives of the classical composers. I remember multiple viewings of "Amadeus," "Immortal Beloved," and "Impromptu," to name a few. I happily hunted down some of the obscure ones for her, but she warned me away from a "terrible" Tchaikovsky biopic, which I later discovered was Ken Russell's "The Music Lovers." Russell did a series of films about composers, all of which I'd never heard of until I started poking around his filmography a few years ago. And no wonder my terribly polite mother avoided them - Russell is a notorious provocateur, fond of filling his films with sex and nudity and other blasphemies.
I, however, am not opposed to blasphemies with the right presentation, which brings us to Russell's "Lisztomania," a pseudo-biopic of pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who was a major celebrity in his time. Played by Roger Daltrey of "The Who," Liszt is reimagined as a nineteenth century pop idol in platform shoes, living a life of hedonism and excess as he tours around Europe. His lover Countess Marie d'Agoult (Fiona Lewis) raises their illegitimate children, including the fiesty Cosima (Veronica Quilligan). Among Liszt's circle of musical colleagues is a newcomer named Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), soon to become a rival with sinister ambitions. And then there's Liszt's newest lover, the Princess Carolyn (Sara Kesteman), a Russian vamp who quickly assumes too much control over his life.
I should also mention that Wagner is revealed to be a vampire who creates an army of proto-Nazi children all garbed as Superman, and ultimately turns himself into a gun-toting Franken-Hitler. And there's a hallucination scene where Liszt grows an eight foot tall erection that fair maidens dance around like a maypole before Princess Carolyn comes after it with a guillotine. By the time Ringo Starr shows up as the Pope to bring Liszt into the Church, it feels appropriate. So does the ending, involving the defeat of Wagner with a rocket ship made out of pipe organs and a piano with built in flamethrowers. Everything in "Lisztomania" is loosely based on historical fact, but presented in these surreal, campy, outsized terms. The plotting is often nonsensical and illogical, occasionally devolving into chaos.
Whatever Russell is trying to say about Liszt's work or celebrity gets totally lost under all the excess, but what excess! The set design is absolutely gorgeous, full of bright colors and obvious phallic symbols everywhere. The costuming is grandiose, mirrored after the stagewear of modern rockers. And I love the little background touches, like having the religious icons all feature modern pop stars like Elton John and the Beatles instead of the saints. There's so much gratuitous content: the abundance of naked female breasts, the character assassination of Wagner, and the silly cameos. And yet, it's all so genially, energetically done, I found it delightful. Even the raunch, which can get stale in a hurry, was awfully entertaining because everyone involved seemed to be enjoying it so much. Even if the film is incoherent, it's fun to just sit back and watch all the audacity unfold.
One of the biggest reasons why the film works as well as it does is Roger Daltrey . He easily fits the celebrity musician profile, as expected, but he also makes an excellent comic lead. He fearlessly throws himself into the absurdity, and gets more to do here than he did in his other famous collaboration with Ken Russell, "Tommy." He swashbuckles against a cuckolded husband in the opening scene, pantomimes in a Charlie Chaplin homage, and cavorts with that giant erection in the most endearingly goofy fashion. He also lends his vocals to the soundtrack, which consists of several progressive rock songs that incorporate Liszt and Wagner's music. Rick Wakeman of the band Yes was responsible for the mangling of the classical works, but the resulting new tunes are quite catchy.
"Lisztomania" has bigger problems, however. I think the first half actually works very well as a spoof, but the more it tries to address bigger themes, the more it struggles. Ken Russell is much too eager to tie together certain ideas without any nuance, especially blowing Wagner's German nationalism and antisemitism into full goose-stepping Nazi hijinks. The whole third act is a mess, because the darker material is relayed in such comic book terms (sometimes literally) that it all feels too silly and irreverent. Franken-Hitler gunning down the Jews is too lurid and mindless, and the redemptive final number too bland. There really is nothing to top the famous giant erection that shows up around the halfway point, so it feels like the movie peaked too early. Ahem.
Anyway, I'm off to watch "The Music Lovers," and to never, ever mention the existence of "Lisztomania" to my mother.