To have had director Ken Russell develop your biopic, as the 19th century pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886) did here, meant having your life story cinematically-butchered by a raving madman. Now, before the stones start flying here, allow me to raise my hands defensively and assure you that I in fact mean this in a good way! After all, you’ve never seen a biopic like Russell’s 1975 film, Lisztomania (or at least I hadn’t), wherein Russell ever-increasingly abstracts the biography of Liszt to the point of total absurdity. And novelty in cinema is something of a rarity these days.
“Lisztomania,” a real term, refers to the hysterical fervor Liszt’s mere presence prompted from his audience. Liszt’s audiences donned portraits of the performer in lockets, rushed the man in the street or onstage, fought over his gloves, and vied for locks of his hair. As the first performer to have consistently had such an effect over his audiences, we might recognize Liszt as the first “pop star” in the way we use the term today to describe the relationship of a female audience to a Justin Bieber or One Direction, for example.
Appropriately then, The Who’s Roger Daltrey plays Liszt here and Russell approaches the 19th century pop star with the same sort of irreverent, psychedelic aesthetic and narrative devices he had developed for The Who in Tommy, released earlier that year. (It also proved to be every bit the star-studded film Tommy had been.) The resulting piece looks to be the work of a certifiable maniac. It’s a neon-colored, musical acid trip through the middle-1800s that places the fame-weary, God-fearing Liszt at odds with composer Richard Wagner, who takes on a villainous role of comic book proportions in the film’s latter half. Poaching on Liszt’s own compositions, the vampiric Wagner forms a cape-wearing, Aryan Youth brigade in his castle, where he instills in them a hatred of “The Beast” (i.e. the Jewish people). There, he also toils to construct an Aryan Superman– a Frankensteinian homunculus– who just so happens to resemble Marvel’s Thor and bears the name of Siegfried, the title character of the third opera in Wagner’s own Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle.
Now, you might not believe this, but what I’ve described in the previous paragraph ultimately accounts for little more than fifteen minutes of the film’s 103-minute running time! Elsewhere in the picture, Liszt appears as Chaplin’s The Tramp in a romantic flashback, he gets sucked up into a gargantuan vagina, flies a rocket ship, gets run over by a train, becomes a monk, and has his seven-foot-tall penis used as a Maypole. It’s sheer fucking lunacy! And you really need to see it for yourself to understand how these pieces still manage to form a cohesive whole that serves as an illuminating reflexive abstraction of Liszt’s life story and his indirect influence on the Nazi Party.
Until recently, however, it proved somewhat difficult to secure a copy of the film for personal viewing, except on a VHS circa 1992. Fortunately, the film has recently been made available on a newly-remastered, manufactured-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive Collection. The film looks and sounds great here, and I strongly suggest that anyone with even a passing interest in the cinematic curiosities of yesteryear check out Lisztomania as soon as they possibly can.