Sunday, September 12, 2021



Written and directed by Ken Russell, Lisztomania is the story of the famed composer and pianist Franz Liszt who tries to break from his decadent lifestyle while dealing with the women in his life who keeps trying to get him back to that world as well as his rivalry with composer Richard Wagner. Based partially on the book Nelida by Marie d’Aglout that is about her affair with Listz, the film is an unconventional study on Listz and his need to be great as he is portrayed by Roger Daltrey of the Who. Also starring Paul Nicholas, Sara Kestelman, Rick Wakeman, and Ringo Starr as the Pope. Lisztomania is an extravagant yet exhilarating film from Ken Russell.

The film is about the life of the 19th Century composer/pianist Franz Liszt as he deals with his decadent lifestyle that include infidelities, putting his work over his family, and such just as he is dealing with a tumultuous rivalry with Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas). It is a film that doesn’t have much of a plot as it is more of a character study of a man trying to do wonders with his music but also deal with his fame and family life where he tends to create trouble around him. Ken Russell’s screenplay is straightforward in its narrative though it contains a lot of surrealistic sequences and flashbacks that play into Liszt’s friendship with Wagner that eventually became this toxic rivalry that has the latter embracing elements of the occult and later Nazism. Russell definitely brings in a lot of anachronisms into the film in order to play up the idea that Liszt was a rock star like many other composers back in the 18th and 19th Century that had adoration from many with fangirls screaming over them.

Russell’s direction is definitely outrageous in terms of its presentation where it opens with Listz having sex and kissing a woman’s breast to the timing of a metronome until that woman’s husband arrives for a duel with sabre swords as it displays the kind of film that Russell is presenting. Shot on various locations in Britain including various studios in Britain, Russell play into this world of decadence that Listz is a part of where his concerts are extravagant events as he is playing to screaming fangirls with lovers and groupies are backstage waiting for him. While Russell does maintain some straightforward imagery in some of the wide and medium shots to get a scope of the world that Listz lives in as well as these intimate moments where Russell would use close-ups for some of the conversations including a scene where Listz talks to the Pope about his impending marriage to Princess Carolyn (Sara Kestelman) whom he had been in a relationship with for a time in his attempt to reach greatness.

Russell also play up this extravagance in the sequence where Listz meets Princess Carolyn as their meeting features these lavish set pieces including large penises, images of icons, and moments that are off the wall including Listz sliding backwards into Princess Carolyn’s vagina. It is then followed by Listz riding a gigantic penis where Princess Carolyn and his lovers all take a ride on it as it play into the decadence that Listz enjoys yet it becomes fleeting by this air of political turmoil that Wagner is coping with. It would play into events in the third act where Listz learns that his daughter Cosima (Veronica Quilligan) has associated herself with Wagner as he is this representation of Nazism believing his music will change the world as Russell portrays Wagner as an evil rock star with a machine-gun like guitar with his minions dressed up like Superman. It would lead this clash of ideals but also force Listz to deal with his own faults and his need for redemption as it would be told in an anachronistic yet lavish form. Overall, Russell crafts a surreal yet wondrous film about the vices and desires of an 18th Century composer who is presented as a rock star.

Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky does brilliant work with the film’s colorful cinematography as it help add to the film’s extravagant visuals with its unique approach to lighting along with some straightforward lighting for some of the daytime exterior scenes. Editor Stuart Baird does excellent work with the editing as it is stylized in its approach to montages, jump-cuts, and other rhythmic cutting to play into the insanity of the film. Production designer Philip Harrison does incredible work with the set designs for some of the places that Liszt goes to including some of the rooms that he lives in as it is a major highlight of the film. Costume designer Shirley Russell does fantastic work with the design of the lavish clothing that Liszt wears as well as the costumes that the women wear along with the clothes that Wagner’s followers wear.

Hairstylist Colin Jamison and makeup supervisor Wally Schneiderman do terrific work with the look of the characters including the many looks of Princess Carolyn and some of Liszt’s mistresses. The special effects work of Colin Chilvers is wonderful for the design of some of the things in the set as it help play into the decadence that Listz is a part of. Sound editor Terry Rawlings does superb work with the sound in capturing the way music is presented live as well as sound effects including some scenes in the film’s third act. The film’s music consists of pieces from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner with additional pieces by Rick Wakeman who does much of the music as its mixture of rock bombast and orchestral music is a highlight of the film as it is a major character of the film as it showcases of how the music of those times would influence pop and rock n’ roll with songs sung by some of the cast including Daltrey as it adds to the decadent world of Liszt.

The film’s marvelous cast feature some notable small roles and appearances from Georgiana Hale reprising her role as Alma Mahler from Mahler, Izabella Telezynska as Madame Nadezhda von Meck from The Music Lovers, Oliver Reed as Princess Caroline’s servant, Murray Melvin as Hector Berlioz, Andrew Faulds as Johann Strauss II, Kenneth Colley as Frederic Chopin, Otto Diamant as Felix Mendelssohn, Ken Parry as Gioachino Rossini, Nell Campbell as one of Liszt’s lovers in Olga Janina, John Justin as Count d’Agoult who challenges Listz to a duel in the film’s opening scenes, and Rick Wakeman in a small yet hilarious performance as a Frankenstein-like monster that Wagner created who looks like the Nordic icon Thor. Ringo Starr’s two-scene appearance as the Pope is a highlight of the film as he just brings a low-key sense of humor to the role while just being someone who is willing to help Liszt. Fiona Lewis is fantastic as one of Liszt’s lovers in Countess Marie d’Agoult whom Liszt is first seen having sex with as she becomes upset by his attention towards his music. Veronica Quilligan is excellent as Liszt’s eldest daughter Cosima who is supportive at first of her father’s quest for brilliance only to later associate herself with Wagner as she becomes angry over her father’s obsession and neglect.

Paul Nicholas is amazing as Richard Wagner as he’s portrayed as a fan of Liszt who feels slighted by his idol as he later turns to politics and then blend both music and politics to become this megalomaniacal vampire of sorts who embraces Nazism as it is this dazzling and fun performance from Nicholas. Sara Kestelman is incredible as Princess Carolyn as the Polish noblewoman who wants to grant Liszt his search for greatness while hoping to marry him as she is also over-the-top and so fun to watch. Finally, there’s Roger Daltrey in a phenomenal performance as Franz Liszt as this brilliant composer who is trying to reach greatness despite the fame and adulation he’s already attained while also trying to find meaning in his music as well as hoping to change the world where Daltrey brings a lot of charisma and energy to the character.

Lisztomania is a spectacular film from Ken Russell that features a great performance from Roger Daltrey as well as incredible supporting performances from Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas, Fiona Lewis, and Ringo Starr. Along with its outlandish presentation, outrageous set pieces, gorgeous visuals, themes of ambition, and a whimsical music soundtrack from Rick Wakeman. It’s a film that doesn’t play by the rules in its study of a revered music composer who is trying to find meaning through his music while dealing with his own faults and vices. In the end, Lisztomania is a tremendous film from Ken Russell.

Ken Russell Films: (Peep Show (1956 short film) – (Amelia and the Angel) - (John Betjeman: A Poet in London) – (Gordon Jacob) – (A House in Bayswater) – (Pop Goes the Easel) – (Elgar) – (Watch the Birdie) – (Bartok) – (French Dressing) – (The Dotty World of James Lloyd) – (The Debussy Films) – (Always on Sunday) – (Don’t Shoot the Composer) – (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World) – (Billion Dollar Brain) – (Dante’s Inferno) – (Song of Summer) – (Women in Love) – (Dance of the Seven Veils) – (The Music Lovers) – (The Devils (1971 film)) – (The Boy Friend) – (Savage Messiah) – Mahler - (Tommy) – (William and Dorothy) – (Valentino) – (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) – (Altered States) – (The Planets (1983 film)) – (Vaughn Williams: A Symphonic Portrait) - (Crimes of Passion) – (Gothic (1986 film)) – (Aria-Nessun Dorma) – (Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music) – (Salome’s Last Dance) – (The Lair of the White Worm) – (The Rainbow (1989 film)) – (Women & Men: Stories of Seduction) – (The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner) – (Whore (1991 film)) – (Prisoner of Honor (1991 TV film)) – (The Mystery of Dr. Martinu) – (The Secret Life of Arnold Bax) – (The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch) – (Lady Chatterley (1993 TV film)) – (Alice in Russialand) – (Mindbender) – (Ken Russell’s Treasure Island) – (Dogboys (1998 TV film)) – (The Lion’s Mouth) – (Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle) – (The Fall of the Louse of Usher) – (Trapped Ashes) – (A Kitten for Hitler)

© thevoid99 2021


SJHoneywell said...

I have wanted to see this for some time. Ken Russell, as a rule, is not to be missed.

Jay said...


thevoid99 said...

@SJHoneywell-It was on TCM several months ago along with Mahler as it's now one of four films of his I've seen so far and I want to see a lot more as I'm loving what Ken Russell is about.

@Jay-Oh, it is a sight to be seen and if you find this film. You're going to be like... "what the fuck am I seeing?"

Ruth said...

Wow, I've never heard of this but sounds like a real hoot. That image alone got me like 'what the heck is THAT?!' ahahaha! Interesting how some composers were treated like rockstars back in the day, as Liszt clearly was.

thevoid99 said...

@Ruth-Ken Russell remains a controversial but fun figure as he made films that are outlandish as a lot of the bio-pics he created strayed from convention.