It is the middle of the eighteenth century, and composer and expert pianist Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey) is one of the biggest stars of the age. He is also a big hit with the ladies, his mistress being Marie d'Agoult (Fiona Lewis), wife of the Count d'Agoult (John Justin) who tonight has just caught them both together in his bedroom. The Count challenges Liszt to a duel right then and there, and chases him around the room until he catches him. He then places both his wife and her lover in a grand piano, nails them inside and leaves the instrument on the railway tracks, where a train hits it, causing a huge explosion...
Now, the life of Franz Liszt might have been an eventful one, but I don't think the passage that opens the film necessarily happened the way that writer and director Ken Russell portrayed it. The same goes for much of the rest of Lisztomania, which takes, shall we say, an idiosyncratic take on the great composer's trials and tribulations as well as his successes, emerging as a crazed skewering of Nazism and pop idols as much as it is a biography. Russell was coming off the success of Tommy, his version of The Who's concept album, which explains much of the imagery used in this.
And also why Daltrey, rock star extraordinaire, is cast in the title role as he was in that previous film, making clear the thought processes the director was going through when making his version of Liszt a rock star in the modern sense. Early on we see him performing a concert to legions of screaming fans, taking his pick of groupies and even doing some dancing on top of his piano as if he were Jerry Lee Lewis, as the concept of classical star and rock star being much the same thing is battered over the audience's heads: subtlety is not the strong point.
So what is the strong point? Well, nobody but Russell could have conjured up the imagery to accompany what in other hands would have been a dry dredging up of the facts, and while he sticks fairly closely to what happened to Liszt, he adorns it in elaborate sets, wild allusions, lots of sex and nudity and synthesised variations of the subject's music as adapted and performed by Rick Wakeman. Liszt leaves his wife Marie and their children to be with the Russian Princess Carolyn (British theatre actress Sara Kestelman), who becomes his patron, and also gives rise to the film's most notorious sequence where Daltrey parades around her court with a ten-foot-long penis that is worshiped by the women in his life, then sent to the guillotine.
Again, that probably didn't happen, but once Russell has established that Liszt liked to spread himself around whatever nubile womenfolk would have him, he gets to the serious stuff. Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), a pupil of Liszt's, is shown to be stealing his master's work to adapt into his own, which has not escaped Russell's notice was much admired by the Nazis in the next century. So he has Franz wracked with guilt over unwittingly instigating this turn of events, and the film transforms into a Hammer horror with Wagner sporting Dracula fangs and vampirising all and sundry, even getting his own "Wagner Youth" movement and creating a Frankenstein's Monster (played by a silver-painted Wakeman) who he plans to make the saviour of Germany. When that doesn't work, Liszt shoots flames from his piano, buries him in rubble, but then sees him reborn as a cross between the Boris Karloff creature and Adolf Hitler, wielding a machine gun electric guitar. Once more, I'm not sure that actually occured. But as a spectacle, as purely insane cinema, unfettered Russell was in a class of his own, misguided as he may have been.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.