TAKING over from Torments on a monthly basis, we have a new feature at the film section: Only in the 70s. It’ll be a feature chronicling the absolute what-the-blue-balling-fuck films of that most drug-fuelled of decades. Kicking us off with appropriate gusto: Ken Russell’s Lisztomania from 1975.
I’ll put this plainly: Lisztomania is absolutely bugfuck insane. It makes Zardoz look demure. It’s a trainwreck in the best possible sense: A beautiful, unhinged catastrophe that stuns you into rigid, open-mouthed silence. Here’s the opening scene, for tasters: A naked Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt scrambling around a bedroom with a Dukes of Hazard-style banjo narration/commentary chiming in the background. Then there’s a train track and a piano explodes and the film whiplashes into a camera’s flashbulb.
Normally I would say this sets the tone but there isn’t one. Normally I’d say it’s schizophrenic but it’s not even that. Really, Lisztomania has absolutely no idea what it is at all. This is a biopic with no bio. Time and space are rendered mutable. Verisimilitude is void. Performances that don’t have Daltrey’s luscious mane in frame have all the Jungian subtleties of high vaudeville. The camp levels rocket off the Kenneth Williams scale. Characters come and go on a whim. The music and ADR are all over the place. It’s mesmerising and baffling and wondrous.
There’s a film somewhere in all this madness and I have no idea how to describe that film. This review may run the risk of sounding more like a plot synopsis but, really, there’s not a lot for me to go on: Lisztomania is so beyond conventional reviewing that I have to resort to drastic measures.
It manages to predate Amadeus in pitting two legendary composers – Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner (a scenery-chewing Paul Nicholas) – against each other. Sadly, Wolfgang and Salieri this ain’t. The enmity and tensions between the two are played for comedic rather than dramatic purposes, at least in the scattered moments when they’re onscreen together. The closest it comes to establishing antagonism is a concert that Liszt gives as a memorial to Beethoven where the audience – entirely composed of teenage girls – reacts diffidently to Wagner’s material and ecstatically to Liszt’s improvisations, much to the former’s chagrin.
Then he gets gassed by wall ornaments resembling anuses. Umm. Then he’s brought before a chain cigar-smoking Princess Carolyn (a magnificent Sara Kestelman) who sits surrounded by very phallic pillars and says stuff like, “’Bollocks’? I don’t speak Hungarian.” “I don’t remember the sixth and ninth Commandments,” Daltrey says. Kestelman replies, “Let us practice the 69th – together.”
I can’t even begin to describe the surreal majesty of what happens next. It involves Daltrey wearing a dress and windmilling a lyre while surrounded by women in corsets as a nine foot erection floats up from beneath his skirts. I am not making this up. It’s kind of incredible.
The film lurches from style to style with such velocity that it’s hard to deem it a coherent narrative in any conventional sense. It’s more appropriate to describe it as a series of vignettes about Daltrey (let’s not call him Liszt) getting into all sorts of wacky japes. Certainly there’s no point whatsoever in examining Lisztomania as a biopic because there’s absolutely no biographical detail on display beyond the fact that Liszt is a really good music guy. The plot (if you can call it that) only really materialises in the last half hour. All that stuff I described up there? Yeah, pretty much irrelevant.
For all its weirdness and anachronistic divergences, the production design is top notch. The extravagant costumes that Daltrey and co wear, the gilded props and the surreally lavish environments they cavort in are lovingly captured by Russell, like his cast, clearly loves every minute he’s filming. On a budget of £1,000,000 (around £4,000,000 today), his sets look incredible. The final scene between Liszt and Wagner in particular features some seriously impressive choreography and cinematography. Shot from numerous angles, Daltrey and Nicholas are placed in the centre of swirling snow while the latter dangles from chandeliers and Daltrey pummels a revolving grand piano with flamethrowers inside of it.
The casting of Daltrey is interesting as well. Russell’s going for the insinuation (at least comparatively) that the great classical musicians were the strutting rockstars of their days; when you look up the phenomenon of Lisztomania on Google, it’s not altogether off the mark. Casting Daltrey as Liszt is a natural fit, but unfortunately Daltrey’s acting doesn’t quite match his skill as a rock performer. His only real problem is occasionally dodgy delivery but he’s certainly charismatic and his expressive features alone are enough to carry a scene. Besides, who cares about that when he’s breakdancing on a piano in a Hungarian officer’s outfit?
Let’s be honest though, all criticisms of performance seem void in a film wherein Richard Wagner is a vampire who bites Franz Liszt (which the script promptly forgets about) and leaves him his latest pamphlet, which is a Superman comic. Ringo Starr (who is the Pope) informs Franz that Wagner is the Antichrist and that only he can “drown Wagner in holy water” in his castle fortress, from which he has taken over the world with opera.
Liszt infiltrates the castle to find Wagner surrounded by Aryan children spouting about the “master race”. ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ drums up in the background. Swastikas on the walls. Yup, Wagner is Hitler. Wagner is vampire Antichrist Hitler. By the end of the film, he’s Zombie Vampire Antichrist Hitler. I am not making this up. Actually, he’s also Dr. Frankenstein, so by the end he’s really Zombie Frankenstein Vampire Antichrist Wagner Hitler. Yeah. Only in the 70s.
It bears reiterating: Lisztomania is an experience. A deranged, surreal, endlessly mystifying and wonderfully entertaining experience. Perhaps when the shock wears off my thoughts will prove more scathing but, right now, I feel enlightened. Really though, how do you turn a cynical critic’s eye on this? Why even bother analysing it as a biopic or an historical examination of Franz Liszt’s life when it’s quite clearly anything but that? It’s better to see it for what it is: A garish pantomime, an adults-only Carry On and a thoroughly, thorough-fucking-ly insane kitsch masterpiece. I love it.