When it comes down to it, the “Musician Biopic” genre is really the "Contemporary or 20th-Century Musician Biopic” genre. Frankly, those are the musicians we know, have seen or remember. Audiences are much more likely to go see movies about singular personalities like Kurt Cobain or Ray Charles than stuffy old wig-wearers. But though those wig-wearers are separated from us by time, by no means are they stuffy, necessarily. Amadeus, for example, made vibrant and popular characters of Mozart and Salieri. But apart from that film, most screen depictions of classical composers have been documentaries. And then there’s Ken Russell’s bizarre 1975 film Lisztomania.
If you know Ken Russell’s filmography at all, the fact that Lisztomania is unlike any other biopic - and indeed, unlike most any other movie - should come as no surprise. Russell made a career out of surprising, delighting and shocking audiences with outrageous, offensive, gloriously produced films, several of which were about classical composers. But while his earlier film The Devils commands the most notoriety (and rightly so), Lisztomania represents Russell at his most unhinged.
At first, Lisztomania plays like a fairly ordinary biopic, if an opulent one. It toys with the notion that Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey) was the world’s first rockstar musician. This Liszt wears furs with no shirts, sleeps around and lives in a giant piano-themed mansion. A concert early on introduces the curious sight of an audience of women in prim dresses and pretty bonnets losing their minds with adoration as if they were seeing the Beatles.
That’s supported by history, too: “Lisztomania” was a term coined by critic Heinrich Heine to describe the intense fandom that surrounded Liszt and his performances. Women of the time were known to swarm and fight over him at performances, and even carry his discarded cigars or coffee dregs around as mementos. It’s much the same as the mania surrounding One Direction and the like nowadays - just a couple centuries removed. Again: just because something took place a long time ago doesn’t mean it took place boringly.
Nor does anything in Lisztomania take place boringly. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more surreal, and less and less rooted in history. Though all the characters are based on real people, Russell’s treatment of them is expressionistic, to put it lightly. It’s such a bizarre film that any description of it sounds made-up. Furiously, exuberantly, extravagantly weird, it’s utter nonsense from a historical and dramatic point of view, but completely captivating from an entertainment one.
I honestly don’t know where to start. Is it the energetic, country music-scored sex scene, swordfight and broad physical comedy routine that collectively open the film? The Chaplinesque silent sequence that features Daltrey/Liszt actually dressed as the Little Tramp? Or the extended hallucination sequence where Liszt’s twelve-foot penis is fawned over, wrapped in ribbons, and put through a guillotine?
Perhaps it’s best to skip to the third act - that’s where the truly bananas stuff starts happening. Again, it’s based on real events. Throughout the first two acts, there are dangling plot threads about Liszt’s rivalry with Richard Wagner, his daughter Cosima, his intent to marry Princess Carolyne of Poland and Germany’s 1848 May Uprising, but it’s not until the third act that it all comes into focus. Here’s a brief precis.
Liszt and Carolyne appeal to the Pope (Ringo Starr) so that Carolyne can get divorced in order to marry Liszt. The Pope entreats Liszt to go on a secret mission for him: to exorcise Satan from Wagner, who has been building a cult in Germany. Liszt makes his way to the castle home of Wagner (now feared throughout the land) and witnesses him undergoing a worryingly white-supremacist ritual. Said ritual features a man with a Star of David on his forehead raping a series of Aryan women, before Wagner enters dressed as Superman and playing electric guitar, accompanied by angelic children’s choir, singing along about their new Teutonic messiah, doing Nazi salutes and chanting “we will be the master race.”
We ain’t done yet. Liszt confronts Wagner, who reveals his plan to create a robotic Viking god to cleanse Germany and turn it into a “nation of steel.” Now in mad-scientist mode, Wagner brings his creation to life, but is disappointed when he proves stupid and useless. Liszt tries to exorcise Wagner with holy water, but Wagner reveals he’s been a vampire all along. Desperate, Liszt begins playing a piano, which spews flames at Wagner and destroys his ritual statues, killing him.
Still not done. Liszt’s daughter Cosima (who’s been working with Wagner this whole time) imprisons and torments Liszt via a voodoo doll, before resurrecting Wagner as a Frankensteined Hitler in platform shoes, wielding an electric guitar that also functions as a machine gun, which he uses to gun down the town’s Jewish population. Liszt actually dies at this point, going to meet his friends in heaven, but Wagner is still at large, destroying "most of the world." So they all pile into a spaceship made out of a pipe organ, shoot lasers at Franken-Wagner-Hitler, and save the day.
Lisztomania, then, is less by-the-numbers biopic and more musing on classical music and musicians, in a way-fictionalised manner. Russell clearly had a bee in his bonnet about Wagner’s music and philosophies, as they form a surprising bulk of this movie ostensibly about Franz Liszt. Other classical composers appear - Berlioz, Schumann, Strauss and Chopin (played by Kenneth Colley, aka Star Wars’ Admiral Piett) - but none are as focused on or as literally demonised as Wagner. Russell’s approach to historical figures has often been through broad brush strokes, and Wagner, rockstar eugenicist, may be the broadest.
Unbelievably, Lisztomania topped the UK box office for two weeks, riding the coattails of Russel and Daltrey’s hit Tommy. The film shouldn’t work, and it actually just plain doesn’t for much of its running time. Every scene introduces a new idea, either in story, or design, or cinematic form, that absolutely clashes with everything that’s come before. Even the music, based on the work of the composers involved, sways awkwardly between the original pieces, prog-rock interpretation from Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and songs by star Daltrey.
Lisztomania is a total mess, but it’s a mess with typically Russell grandiosity and oddness of vision, definitely earning a place in the top two most bonkers musicals I’ve seen. You certainly won’t find another music biopic like it.