Lisztomania DVD Review: An Outrageous Biopic from Ken Russell

You may not learn much about Franz Liszt from Russell's defiantly excessive film, but it's a must-see anyway.
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One of the least conventional biopics ever made, Ken Russell’s delirious, hilarious, utterly batshit insane Lisztomania revels in excess like no other Russell work I’ve seen. Those put off by the historical inaccuracies and extensive creative license in Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers from five years earlier will likely have their heads exploded by Lisztomania, which doesn’t even bother with the pretense of historicity.

LisztomaniaStarring The Who frontman Roger Daltrey (also the lead in Russell’s adaptation of Tommy, released the same year) as composer Franz Liszt, Lisztomania is a messy, completely episodic film that vaults from one gleefully vulgar setpiece to the next. And yet, like in The Music Lovers, Russell’s filmmaking chops are so foundationally sound, the whole thing never devolves into incoherence.

After an opening scene in which Liszt is discovered in bed with the married countess Marie d'Agoult (Fiona Lewis), and a swordfight packed with the most obvious phallic imagery possible ensues, one feels prepared for the kind of outrageous spectacle only Russell can deliver. And yet, he keeps upping the ante, and demented fever dreams and broad sexual comedy pour out. Where else are you going to see a film that has both Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) reimagined as a Nazi superhero vampire and a Busby Berkeley inspired musical number featuring Franz Liszt sporting a 10-foot long erection?

Lisztomania does have some basis in reality, as the titular phenomenon in which Liszt’s performances were often greeted by fan hysteria is well documented. Russell’s interpretation turns Liszt into a rock god, adored by throngs of screaming women imploring him to play “Chopsticks.” Up-and-comer Wagner is disgusted by the spectacle and Liszt’s apparent disregard for serious music, but Liszt can hardly be bothered by the young brat — after all, there is a copious amount of women who want to sleep with him, including the wealthy Princess Carolyn (Sara Kestelman). But when Wagner’s plan for world domination begins to take shape, Liszt may be forced to take notice.

One isn’t going to learn much about Franz Liszt from Russell’s film, and I’m sure there are many who think a work like this tramples on the historical reputation of real people (Wagner may have been an anti-Semite, for instance, but one could hardly call him a maniacal mass-murderer). Nonetheless, Lisztomania is undeniably successful at upending stuffy convention and stringing together fantastic and shocking setpieces. It’s a must-see among the oeuvre of the late, great British filmmaker.

Warner Archive has given Lisztomania a release on burn-on-demand DVD-R disc, offering up a strong, colorful 2.40:1 transfer that offers a nice, detailed picture considering DVD’s limitations. Infrequent speckling and a few stray marks on the print pop up from time to time, but the film looks quite good overall. The disc features no extras.

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