You never forget Ann-Margret writhing around in baked beans spewing out of a television set in Tommy, no matter if you’re in high school, as I was, or any age really. Once you’ve seen that, you’re ready for anything else that auteur Ken Russell has made, one of the few directors who can be called an auteur, even with so many people collaborating with him, because his imprint is distinct. No doubt he decided exactly how many children in Wonder Woman costumes (yes, that’s right) should be seen in the Nazi Wagner scenes in Lisztomania, or how many photos of movie history, including Judy Garland in A Star is Born and Abbott & Costello, should be on the elaborate costume of the pope, played by Ringo Starr. Your brain’s processing these words correctly.
No Ken Russell movie is ever typical, so this isn’t your average music composer biopic. In fact, it starts off with Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt kissing the breasts of Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis), to the rhythm of a metronome, faster and faster. Then her husband, Count d’Agoult (John Justin in makeup that would make Annie Lennox proud), catches him in the act and engages him in the most one-sided swordfight you will ever see in movie history. Lisztomania has a lot of “most” this and “most” that throughout, and after the Count’s men nail Franz and Marie inside a piano to be run over by a train, we’re at a party, one of the most unusual parties you will ever see, if not the most unusual, with a guest list including Felix Mendelssohn (Otto Diamant), Brahms (Liszt tells him to piss off), Rossini, George Sand (Imogen Claire), and Hector Berlioz (Murray Melvin). There’s also a spinning set of candles outside the window, heralding Liszt’s concert, which looks like it could have been something created by his screaming groupies. Liszt has groupies, and during a concert, they’re the loudest contingent in the audience.
Here’s how Lisztomania works, and it applies to other Ken Russell movies, depending on how wild his imagination runs: You try to get a good handle on the story at the beginning, and you think you do. Liszt loves women, enough to risk the wrath of this Count. Seems straightforward enough. Then comes the concert in which he promises Wagner (Paul Nicholas) that he’ll play his music in an arrangement that he believes to be just right. He plays it, but keeps going into Chopin’s (Kenneth Colley) “Chopsticks,” the audience also demanding it at various intervals. And then, you simply give up trying to find exposition, and float on the tide of Lisztomania, watching as Liszt apparently decides he’ll help Wagner in his political quest, and deals with many mistresses, and finds out that his daughter, Cosima (Veronica Quilligan) is unhappy with his parenting, and he decides to become a priest, and oh, just go along with it. It seems impossible that Russell’s Liszt (remember, what you’ll see here cannot at any time be taken as fact) would become a priest what with his dalliances with women, but he does, in the way Russell sees him becoming a priest.
But through all this, I’ve only just reached yet what shows that no other director could do this, that there will never be another Ken Russell today or in the future: In a scene with Princess Carolyn (Sara Kestleman), who wants a divorce from Czar Nicholas, Liszt, with women dancing around him, gets an erection that becomes the biggest penis you’ll ever see in any movie. No gross-out comedy could ever attempt this without being shunned. It could only come from Ken Russell, and it’s the kind of visual that makes one wish that there had been an audio commentary from some Russell historian/fan/groupie included on this DVD from Warner Archive, to learn how Russell and his crew came up with this and built this. Not only that, but the musical fighter plane toward the end in combat with the Wagner Frankenstein Nazi that guns down Jews with his machine-gun guitar, a napalm-loaded piano, the costumes that include Liszt’s piano robe, with piano keys on the cuffs and down the front, and settings that make you wonder if Russell simply built them himself, even though they’re obviously of planet Earth. It would seem possible.
Lisztomania looks wonderful through Warner Archive’s efforts, and no less would be expected for a purely visual orgy-feast. Had it looked like as grainy as some of their previous black-and-white releases, there surely would have been an uprising, because the late Russell deserves the best efforts for his movies to be seen clearly, to be studied, inevitably reviled, and equally inevitably celebrated. At times, you’re not sure what you’ve just seen, what your feelings are about it, but it’s a fantastic ride from a filmmaker who truly knew what movies are meant to be. There is no rest during a Ken Russell film. It’s all simultaneously delightful and horrifying imagination run incredibly amok. We could use more Ken Russells today.