The theme for October’s Genre Grandeur over at the excellent MovieRob was biopics, and I chose one of the most non-biographical biopics of all – Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975). As always, Genre Grandeur is a super awesome series and I’d definitely suggest checking out the posts at MovieRob. (Thought I’d post this now to provide a bit of a break from all these NYC photo posts!)
Probably one of the least biographical biopics you’ll ever see, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) illustrates the life and talents of 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, played by Roger Daltrey of The Who. In this film, Liszt is visualised as one of the first pop stars who develops a cult following of hysterical young women. Lisztomania follows him as he meets his many mistresses, and battles his nemesis Richard Wagner, whose political extremism becomes more and more severe as time goes by. True to Ken Russell’s typical thematic and directorial style, Lisztomania is highly silly but with a lot of symbolism and substance.
Lisztomania is a pretty funny film. I would liken it to the Monty Python films in terms of its dry, ridiculous humour, and its musical sequences which are super catchy. There’s a lot of surrealism in this film that reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s visual style from Monty Python as well. There is also a lot (a LOT) of sexual humour (both verbal and visual) that may put some people off. If you feel awkward or are offended by sexual humour and themes then this isn’t the film for you. But if you don’t mind that kind of humour, then you’ll probably find this film extremely funny. Given how overt some of the jokes are, this film must have been extremely provocative for its time.
Roger Daltrey is probably not the best actor of all time, but he has a lot of charisma, and as frontman for The Who you can almost sense his empathy with Liszt and his hordes of crazy fans and promiscuous women. I really don’t think this film is at all representative of Liszt’s life, which makes me wonder why the film is considered a biopic at all. But Lisztomania is an interesting portrait of a complex and infamous person, regardless of its silliness and overt sexuality, and Daltrey is a very watchable lead.
The music in Lisztomania is great – with lots of synthesiser covers of Liszt and Wagner, which is a nice mix between old and new. The fact that the music is excellent makes a lot of sense, since the soundtrack was composed by the amazing Rick Wakeman of the band Yes, who makes an appearance in this as the Norse god Thor. Roger Daltrey also sings a lot (surprise), and it sounds like The Who all the time, which is great if you’re a fan. In addition to the music, the set and costume design is fantastic; so creative and highly detailed. I think my favourite costume was of a Russian princess, whose headdress shaped like a halo reflected the religious iconography artwork from Russia at the time.
I think my absolute favourite part of this film, however, is that the one and only Ringo Starr has a cameo as the Pope. He’s not the greatest actor, but his charm is inescapable. Ringo’s Pope is a philosophical cowboy who wears boots with spurs and has a snazzy curled moustache. At one point he’s wheeled into a room with his entourage of nuns and cardinals, to the sound of a police car or ambulance. It’s the little things about this film that will charm you, and for me, one charming element of this film is definitely the presence of Ringo.
My other favourite part of this film is the portrayal of Richard Wagner, played by Paul Nicholas, whose problematic political views, extreme xenophobia and burgeoning Nazism are illustrated through interesting symbolism. For example, as Wagner hopes to profit from Liszt’s genius, he’s shown becoming a vampire and sucking blood from Liszt’s neck as he composes music. Later, as Wagner’s xenophobia develops, he distributes a pamphlet to Liszt – in a quick cut scene, we see that the pamphlet is actually a Superman comic, a clever reference to the Nazi concept of the Ubermensch. There are clever bits and pieces like this all throughout the film, all illustrated with the weird sense of humour that is evident from the very beginning.
Even though Lisztomania is probably more of a crazy surrealist explosion rather than a biopic film, there’s a lot to love about this portrait of womanizing piano genius Franz Liszt. Where else would you be able to see Roger Daltrey fight a Frankenstein Hitler with a spaceship shaped like a synthesiser organ? I would argue that a sight like this is rare. On that alone, Lisztomania is worth a watch, particularly if you’re a fan of The Who, or of 70s music and culture in general.
Watch the trailer here.