DVD Review: Lisztomania

Ken Russell was the master of cinema excess in the ’70s. The English director had the ability just to go into visual and emotional overdrive to create a blissful chaotic mess on the screen. Even though he came from a documentary background, he didn’t feel obliged to stick to realism. His cinema was operatic and not for those with delicate sensibilities. Russell didn’t create a historically accurate biography of composer Franz Liszt unless you already believe the composer of the Hungarian Rhapsodies used an organ powered rocketship to attack a Nazi Frankenstein. Lisztomania explores Europe’s first rock star by making him a modern rockstar and not a museum piece.

Besides composing, Liszt was a major draw as a pianist with a theatrical dazzle untouched until Liberace blossomed. Instead of casting an actor, Russell found a 20th century rock star to play the 19th century’s first rock star. The Who’s Roger Daltrey got the apart working with Russell on the movie adaptation of Tommy. Roger’s main attributes for the role are his ability to look good on stage, his long bushy hair and his ability to look good while sword fighting nearly naked. This last skill goes on display when his affair with Countess Marie d’Agoult (Dr. Phibes Rises Again‘s Fiona Lewis) gets exposed by her husband. The guy isn’t happy that Liszt is tinkling his wife’s ivories. After a sword fight, he comes up with an unusual demise for Liszt and his wife involving a piano and a train. Don’t fret that the movie is over. Liszt is alive and well and partying backstage with all the major composers of his time and undressed classical music groupies. It’s like being backstage with the Rolling Stones. Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) crashes the party with his latest musical work. Liszt is so impressed with the new guy’s work, he’ll be working it into that evening’s show. While the audience for that evening’s show is dressed in 19th century garb, they’re a bunch of screaming girls like the audience for The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. This isn’t a stuffy biopic with polite extras.

Liszt wants to be a faithful husband instead of a scamp. His relationship with Marie d’Agoult gets summed up as a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. But the domestic situation leads to three children and major a creative block. The best way for him to get the music flowing is hit the road for a few concerts and hook up with some new ladies. His daughter (The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s Veronica Quilligan) isn’t happy at being abandoned. She has a voodoo dolly made of her father and she will use it. Liszt in the meantime he skips off to Russia to hook up with a Russian Princess (Sarah Kestelman). They perform a musical number that involves giant body parts. This scene won’t be shown in a high school musical appreciation class. The wildness does get his juices flowing. He ends up meeting Pope Ringo Starr (The Beatles) and sleeping with Nell Campbell from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the meantime, Wagner has married his daughter. The slightly unbalanced composer has found success. He lives in a castle with a floor show including naked maidens and girls dressed like Superman. Wagner has created a Thor robot played by Rick Wakeman of Yes. The robot is programmed to kill Jewish people. Liszt does not approve of his son-in-law. There’s a superhero battle between these composing titans. Liszt ultimately gets in a spaceship to battle a Nazi Frankenstein. You don’t read about that in Wikipedia. It’s beautifully over the top.

Listomania is historically significant as the first film to hit theaters with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack. This was a smart move to expand Rick Wakeman’s synth score across the screen. The excess of soundtrack barely matched the outrageous weirdness taking place on the screen. The film is aimed squarely at people who don’t like stale and stodgy historical recreations of how classical composers lived pious lives. The film lives up to the title giving us Liszt with plenty O Mania.

The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The transfer bring out the detail of the outlandish sets and costumes. This is a very clean image with popping colors. Lisztomania is a Manufacture on Demand title. The audio is Dolby Digital Stereo. The levels are right for the mixing of music and audience screams during concert scenes.

There are no bonus features.

Lisztomania is a wonderfully outrageous biopic of Fran Liszt. This is Ken Russell at his over indulgent glory.

Warner Archive Collection presents Lisztomania. Directed by: Ken Russell. Screenplay by: Ken Russell. Starring: Roger Daltery, Paul Nicholas, Ringo Starr and Rick Wakeman. Running Time: 103 minutes. Rating: Rated R. Released: September 6, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.

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