A music critic’s pick: ‘Lisztomania’ at the Egyptian


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Lady Gaga, be gone. Be gaggéd. Get thee from the spotlight.

Make way for ‘Lisztomania’!

Ken Russell’s 1975 movie, the one supposedly about the first and greatest pop star (and no middling talent, this Franz Liszt, however many the 19th century screaming groupies he attracted), will have a rare American Cinematheque screening at the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday night with the 83-year-old director in attendance.

In this flamboyantly operatic fantasy, Liszt, played by Roger Daltrey, lead singer of the Who, dresses to kill and then some. And then some more. (‘Lisztomania’ was Russell’s follow-up to ‘Tommy,’ which screens with it on the 7:30 p.m. double feature.)


As for the naughty bits, ‘Lisztomania,’ which features female naked bodies in profusion, goes considerably beyond the mildly risqué Gaga-esque fishnet body sock.

Watch Liszt make love like a mad metronome.

Watch Liszt ride a giant penis and porno maypole through a Busby Berkeley chorus line en route to a colossal castration.

Watch a vampire Wagner suck Liszt’s music -- and his blood.

Watch Siegfried (played by Rick Wakeman of Yes) come to life as an idiotic Thor monster too soused to attack the Jews he was built to terrorize.

Watch Liszt finish off Wagner with a flame-throwing piano.

Watch Cosima, Liszt’s daughter and Wagner’s wife, get revenge on her father by torturing him with a voodoo doll.

Watch Wagner then rise from the grave as a Frankenstein Hitler gunning down Jews with a electric guitar machine gun.

Watch Liszt and his lovely mistresses swoop down from heaven piloting a rocket ship powered by organ pipes and wipe out said rampaging Frankenstein Hitler for good.


Behold the Pope. Pope Ringo!

And, most of all, wonder at Roger Daltrey, a pop star like none nowadays (although he’s still hanging in there singing with the Who). An agile, appealing actor, Daltrey kicks up a credible Hungarian dance on the piano (no wires) and performs his own dangerous stunts (also no wires). He also plays the piano.

Wikipedia lists Daltrey’s instruments as ‘vocals, guitar, harmonica, percussion and trombone.’ But what does Wikipedia know? On Russell’s droll commentary track to a British DVD of the film (it is not available domestically, alas, but the import shows up from time to time at Amoeba Music in Hollywood and can be viewed on an all-region player), the director insists that every bar of Liszt’s piano music in the film is played by Daltrey. ‘He needed a few tapes,’ Russell says, and he spent some hours practicing.

It takes more than some hours practicing to find your way through even a few bars of a virtuosic Liszt ‘Hungarian Rhapsody,’ but Daltrey, who clearly has keyboard chops, finds his way, with charisma and musicality. He sings Wakeman’s pop versions of Liszt tunes with charisma and style, as well.

Russell’s film is, of course, meant to provoke. He has made dozens of composer portraits over the past half-century, most for British television. The early ones, particularly Delius and Elgar, were relatively straightforward and brilliant. Then beginning with Strauss, also brilliant, Russell got carried away. ‘Lisztomania’ is the culmination of three composer feature films made in the ‘70s -- ‘The Music Lovers’ (with Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky) and ‘Mahler’ are the other two. In these, Russell got really carried away, and most of all in ‘Lisztomania.’

Films about music these days are typically sanctimonious, sentimental, stupid or simply bland costume dramas, so we tend to label Russell’s outrageous biopics surreal. But they are no more surreal than dance or opera. Rather they are hyper-real, Russell’s unfiltered reaction to music. Indeed, modern opera production, at least in Europe, tends to be more Russellian than not. Russell, himself, directed the odd opera, his stagings just a shade short of over-the-top. But in retrospect, his films are what historians may look back at and say what is called, for better or worse, Eurotrash actually started with Ken.

Make no mistake, ‘Lisztomania’ trusts music and music history. Maybe even too much. The film proved too literate to do good box office. Much of what might seem like Russell’s puerile pornographic fantasy is parody based on fact.

But what is great about ‘Lisztomania’ is the music that made the director do it. And music let him get away with it.
-- Mark Swed

[updated: an earlier version of this misspelled Busby Berkeley’s first name.]