home    films    tv/opera    news    shop   forum    more    all sites

Ken Russell films

Ken Russell - Lisztomania - title

"It's a berserk exercise of demented genius, and on that level (I want to make my praise explicit) it functions and sometimes even works. Most people will probably despise it" (Roger Egbert,  28 Oct 1975,  click here)

Lisztomania, a film on composer Liszt, 1975, with music by Rick Wakeman. Says it all- not Russell's idea.  A vampire Wagner and a Golem/Frankenstein creature with an electric guitar that is actually a machine gun who walks through a ghetto slaughtering Jews, accompanied by children wearing superman-like clothes.  Cosima sees Liszt through a swastika-shaped window and pulls out a voodoo doll and pierces it with a pin to kill him. Yes, clearly the story of the composer Liszt.

The film aims at a comic strip satire linked to pop music, following his success with Tommy and Daltry.   Russell had tried a comic strip approach previously with Dance of the Seven Veils about Richard Strauss which, despite its unpopularity, is at times beautiful and does bring over the beauty of the music.  Here the overall impression is of crude imagery and is unlikely to make people want to listen to more of Liszt's music.  The script by Russell, in particular the dialogue, is pedestrian.

"Lisztomania may be the most embarrassing historical film ever made... Can't think what went wrong with this one. Nineteenth-century composer plus a spaceship, comedy zombie Hitler, Pope Ringo, and a giant penis: it must have sounded so good on paper" (Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian, 6 Feb 2013 click here).

"I wanted the chance to do a satirical film... I wanted at last to have the freedom to have a bit of fun" (Russell from DVD commentary).  Russell also says his later home-made short Boudica Strikes Back was made similarly.

Ken Russell- Lisztomania

Liszt “was born in the year of the great comet and his career was that of a brilliant phenomenon.  For half a century he illuminated the world of music as pianist, astonishing and delighting the greatest auditory any public performer had yet attached to himself… as a composer he introduced new processes and he counts as the inventor of the symphonic poem” (The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy A Scholes, 1938, 1955, 1970).

The film covers the period in Liszt's life 1839-1847 "He was a brilliant pianist. but one with a love of ostentation.  For him it was never just about the music but also involved an element of showmanship.  He offered his audiences a great spectacle that revolved around a single actor: himself" (Franz Liszt Musician, Celebrity, Superstar by Oliver Holmes, translated by Stewart Spencer, 2016, chapter 4).

Russell says Roger Daltry, playing Franz Liszt, was unfamiliar with Liszt's music before the film, but he practiced the music and actually plays the piano music in the film, unlike Richard Chamberlaine in The Music Lovers who played the piano, but the music was dubbed,

Ken Russell- Lisztomania - Paul Nicholas - Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner, played by Paul Nicholas (Cousin Kevin in Tommy)- Russell says he used the sailor's cap in homage to the film Battleship Potemkin (DVD commentary).  Liszt supported Wagner and although Wagner married Liszt's daughter Cosima they would become musical rivals.

Ken Russell- Lisztomania

Liszt's happy marriage to Marie, played by Fiona Lewis, falls apart.

  Ken Russell- Lisztomania - Veronica Quilligan - voodoo

Veronica Quilligan plays Cosima, Liszt's daughter who would marry Wagner.  She acts with subtlety, the innocent girl who is actually full of hatred and anti-Semitism.   Russell has her use a voodoo doll to torture Liszt.  In Mahler Russell again brings out the anti-Semitism of Cosima.

It is hard not think the film is a cheap looking cash-in on Tommy, though Russell says it cost over a million pounds, one of his highest budgets.  Roger Daltry´s acting is poor and he is not convincing as a musical genius, even a wayward one.  The film is basically a sex comedy though it is not very funny. The concert sequence with squealing girls dressed like Jane Austen is too long and the film collapses into banality.

"Now it can be argued that Mr. Russell, with all his dazzle, is not intending, but aping symbolism. Or that he is not so much being pretentious as mocking pretention. Try mocking a quicksand by somersaulting artistically into it: The rate at which you sink is just the same, and only your closest admirers will be interested in pulling you out" (Richard Eder, The New York Times, 11 Oct 1975).

Ken Russell - Lisztomania - fans

Typical of Russell, there are elements of truth. The worst element is the pretentious modern title Lisztomania- but this is actually contemporary - "German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine coined the word Lisztomania to describe the 'true madness, unheard of in the annals of furore' that broke out at concerts by the piano virtuoso Franz Liszt" (Dorian Lynskey, 29 Sep 2013, The Guardian, click here).  The cartoon is by Adolf Brennglas from 1842.

Another view by site visitor Steve Mobia (thanks Steve) is:

Ken Russell- Lisztomania

"A constant stream of visual imagination, LisztOmania is the most unconventional and unique of Ken Russell's output.

Ken Russell- Lisztomania - Hitler figure

Ken Russell- Lisztomania

Whereas the films of Mahler and Tchaikovsky had flashes of brilliance (the 1812 overture scene in The Music Lovers, the conversion scene in Mahler for instance), with Liszt, Russell finds the freedom for full unhinged expression. It must take the cake as the most peculiar biography ever made about a classical composer. The real world Liszt was a master show off, turned the keyboard toward the audience and performed diminished seventh runs as if possessed by the devil. Russell's film depicts Liszt as the first classical "pop star," complete with fanatical pubescent fans (with fans) and groupies. The movie darts in and out of music and film references, historic fact and allegory — all presented in a hyberbolic comic strip fashion. Yes it's often tasteless and crude but that's all a part of the fun.

Ken Russell- Lisztomania

Ken Russell- Lisztomania

Though The Devils is arguably Russell's greatest film in both structure and substance, LizstOmania, though not a very well structured movie is dazzling in its audacity. The picture is a must-see for any music student!"


Roger Daltry in Lisztomania

Roger Daltry as Liszt.  His acting ability is limited, but impressively he actually plays the piano music including the purely Liszt pieces.  Ken Russell says he did not think Daltry knew Liszts's music before the film but "He spent hours perfecting his technique... Every bar played by him" (from DVD commentary).

Wagner becomes a vampire.  "In 1828, Polidori's tale was turned into an opera- Der Vampyr - by the composer Heinrich Marschner: Wagner wrote additional music for a performance in Würzburg in 1833" (Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 20 Feb 2009, click here).

     Kill Bill Vol 1

Ringo Starr (left) as the pope.  Liszt vitis the Pope Pius IX seeking an annulment of his marriage.  Compare with Kill Bill (right) by Tarantino 28 years later.

Fiona Lewis says ""...Ken was in his canvas chair, his customary bottle of wine at his side, directing with a bullhorn- one of his many affectations, even if the action was taking place only a few feet away. “You are stupid, Fiona, utterly stupid,” he boomed, one hand whirring above his head. Apparently, I wasn’t talking fast enough, or with enough conviction... After fifteen minutes of Ken’s gleeful insults, I told him to royally f*ck off, then left the set and locked myself in my dressing room.  I informed the producer David Puttnam that I would stay there until Ken apologized.  I waited for hours. He never came, of course.  So (contractually) I had to come out.  I don’t think I spoke directly to Russell for the rest of the movie.  It was criticized as “one of the most embarrassing historical movies ever made”.  Now, of course, it’s something of a classic" (Fiona Lewis, Fiona French Chateau, 17 Feb 2017, click here).

Rick Wakeman doing the music as well as acting, what more could you want.  An example of the lyrics "war is waste, waste is guilt".   He says about the album from the film "This album stinks.  At the time I was having a huge run in with A&M records and their hierarchy would do anything possible to try and disrupt what I was trying to do.  It was not an easy time.  I delivered the finished soundtrack album and it was immediately thrown back in my face and a deal was done directly with the film company to take the tapes and do what they wanted with them, which was a complete disaster in my eyes.  The album flopped dismally and I was furious because it was my name on the front cover (Rick Wakeman,  Rick Wakeman CBE's Place, not dated, accessed 7 May 2023, click here).  In the commentary ton the DVD Russell says some music in the  film, not Wakeman's or Liszt/Wagner's, was the choice of the producer not him.

The music includes
• Piano Concerto 2 (Liszt)
• Rienzi (Wagner) /Chopsticks Fantasia (Liszt)- opening concert with screaming girls
• Love’s Dream based on Liebestraum (Liszt, lyrics Daltry) – fireplace/ Chaplin scene
• Dante’s Chamber based on Dante Sonata (Liszt) – entering meeting chamber
• Orpheus Song (Liszt, lyrics Daltry/Benson) - in chamber with icons
• Funerailles (Liszt, lyrics Benson) - playing lyre/ guillotine
• Excelsior Song (Liszt, lyrics Wakenan, Russell) - inside castle of Frank
• Peace at Last (Liszt, lyrics Benson, Daltry) - spaceship

Russell contributes to the lyrics of Excelsior Song.

Oliver Reed in Lisztomania

Oliver Reed appears in a cameo role as the servant- in the book Hellraiser Robert Sellers states Reed was given four bottles of Dom Perignon for the role, one more than for his cameo in Mahler.

Stuart Baird edits and cinematography is by Peter Suschitzky.  Costume design was by Shirley Russell.  Choreography was by Russell regular Imogen Clare and is a homage, like The Boyfriend, to Hollywood musicals.

Ken Russell - Lizstomania - credit

Best Image

Pete Townsend in Lisztomania

Ken Russell - Lizstomania - Elvis - John Entwistle

Three of the Russian icon paintings of saints are actually paintings of Pete Townsend of The Who (top) and Elvis Presley and Who member John Entwistle (below).

Ken Russell - Lizstomania - Ringo Starr

The pope's robe is made up of images from films.

Ken Russell- Lisztomania  Ken Russell- Lisztomania

Daltry, in love, writing music notes as hearts.  Though family life soon drains his creativity.

Not an image but a piece of dialogue which must mean a lot to Russell- "time kills critics my dear".


Best Scene

Daltry as Chaplin in Lisztomania

The Chaplin sequence, a film within a film just like the Cosima Wagner sequence in Mahler.


Wagner appears in a sailor's suit (French Dressing etc).
The tsarina is similar to the doll in Gothic.
Daltry in his skimpy loin cloth is often a Christ image.



Other films released in the same year include Star Wars, Annie Hall and The Spy Who Loved Me as well as Russell's Tommy.

Star Wars  Annie Hall  The Spy Who Loved Me  Tommy


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


click for previous films click for films index click for next films

home films tv/stage news forum shop more all the sites

www.iainfisher.com / send mail /  © 1998- 2023 Iain Fisher