Franz Liszt once said:
‘Truly great men are those who combine contrary qualities within themselves.’
He could have been talking about the late, great Ken Russell, who mixed contrary qualities in his films, perhaps most brilliantly in his bio-pic on the composer, Lisztomania.
Russell had this incredible ability of presenting the truth of an artist and their work, while abandoning any pretense towards biographical realism. In 1975, he captured this perfectly with Lisztomania, presenting Liszt as the equivalent of a pop idol, with his screaming fans and over-indulged libido, in an intelligent, multi-layered imagining of the composer’s life, while using reference points from Charlie Chaplin to rock and roll, comic books to literature, philosophy to the horrors of Nazism.
At the time of its release, Russell described his process of making the film:
‘My film isn’t biography, it comes from things I feel when I listen to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and when I think about their lives.’
Lisztomania is a Pop Art movie with a Punk Rock sensibility - released the same year as Russell’s version of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, and The Rocky Horror Show, on the cusp of the Sex Pistols formation.
I recall how the Observer Magazine ran a color spread on Lisztomania, in eager anticipation that then 48-year-old l’enfant terrible, Mr. Russell, had re-invented cinema with his marriage of pop stars and classical music - Roger Daltery as Liszt, Ringo Starr as the Pope, Paul Nicholas as Wagner - all surrounded by icons of Elvis and Pete Townshend. Of course, when the film was released, the critics recoiled in horror, and ran screaming for their mothers, or shared smelling salts in the back row of the cinema, to keep them from fainting.
Lisztomania is like no other movie, it is an art work that demands repeated viewing to pick through the cinematic and cultural references, and to appreciate the workings of the creative mind behind the camera. Ross Care in Film Quarterly said of the film:
‘Ken Russell is an intuitive symbolist and fantasist, a total film-maker who orchestrates his subjects in much the same manner that a composer might transcribe a musical composition from one interpretative medium to another (as, for example, Liszt himself did with certain works by Wagner and Berlioz and other composers of the period).”
Starring Roger Daltery as Liszt, Sara Kestelman as Princess Carolyn, Paul Nicholas as Wagner, and Ringo Starr as the Pope. Look out for (LIttle) Nell Campbell, Rick Wakeman, Georgina Hale, Murray Melvin and an uncredited, Oliver Reed.
Read Ross Care’s article on Lisztomania here.
Previously on Dangerous Minds