Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lisztomania (1975)

Fiona Lewis and Roger Daltrey waiting for a train
Been a while since I braved the loft-archive, but last weekend I emerged with a very dusty off-tv recording of Ken Russell’s tribute to the soul and style of Franz Liszt.

Lisztomania was made in 1975 and came to my attention as a young teen still under the thrall of progressive rock (not that I was waiting to be saved by punk). The soundtrack was written by Rick Wakeman and I remember hearing him discussing the film on radio whilst some of the music was played.

I was especially impressed with his take on Liebestraum No. 3 and welcomed the introduction to this classical great… prog wasn’t entirely evil and genuinely helped open our minds to classical and other music outside the charts. The film sounded interesting but it was an 18 and my interest in cape-wearing synth players was on the wane so... I never got to see the film.

36 years on was it worth the wait or did I make the right call first time round?

Liszt naps with Little Nell (Nell Campbell)
Ken Russell was always a mixed bag of a director with a mix of cheese alongside genuinely original vision. Undoubtedly intellectual he often seemed to prick his own bubble with the outrageous and the unfathomable.

I was impressed with Women in Love, Mahler and even up to The Rainbow (a favourite DH Lawrence book anyway) but distressed by The Devils and unsettled in unfulfilling ways by Lair of the White Worm and other later works. I probably wasn’t understanding him clearly but the films seemed inconsistent in tone and almost slapdash collections of disparate imagery.
Lisztomania was the film Russell made after Tommy and is, for me, a mixed bag. It has some great set pieces early on especially Liszt playing in front of hundreds of screaming teenagers who call out for Chopsticks. But by the end things have deteriorated  as demons rape nubiles, a gun-toating Wagner declares war half a century too early on Europe and Liszt returns from Heaven to exact musical revenge on the composer who inspired the Nazis.
Rock icons...
Maybe Russell deserves a lot of credit for interpreting Liszt’s life in such a way, there are many elements of truth in the story, Wagner was encouraged by the older composer and did end up marrying one of his daughters, Liszt did tour Europe under the patronage of a Russian countess and his love life was certainly complicated… just not this complicated!

Lisztomania did exist as a term at the time as the virtuoso defined the possibilities of the piano in stunning live performances across the continent.
Sara Kestelman
Russell uses a pop star to play the star and Roger Daltrey does a reasonable job. He is rather outclassed by Paul Nicholas as the demonic Wagner as Sara Kestelman as his Russian countess (I saw her at the Donmar Theatre earlier this year and she is still a fantastic actress).
Liszt, Wagner and Thor the God of Thunder
Rick Wakeman plays Thor the Thunder God (who pisses in the fire place) and Ringo Starr, in an obvious piece of typecasting, plays the Pope…
Pope Ringo
The story is heavy on sexual imagery, the Countess’ house has phallic pillars whilst Liszt has an hallucinated ten foot phallus chopped off as the metaphorical quid pro quo for being able to focus on his music thanks to her patronage as he took holy orders…

You keep on asking yourself is this necessary? Isn’t there another way?
So it goes until Wagner turns really bad and is annihilated by the virtuous tunes of Liszt and along with his lovers and daughter, the composer descends on war-torn Europe in a heavenly spaceship.

It definitely means something but it’s hedging its bets. Russell did brash and entertaining and my teenage self would have laughed like mad at this film. I’m glad I watched it but I just had the feeling he could have done it better… and that’s my over-riding reaction to many of Ken Russell’s films after this point.
Flying muses...
Crimes of Passion proved that he could still make good films and he is undoubtedly one of the leading British director's of the last half century.

Lisztomania is now available on DVD and is worth watching as entertainment. It might make more sense though if you know about Liszt, Wagner and the influence of classical music on nationalist thinking in the last century.

No comments:

Post a Comment