Ken Russell on Lisztomania

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Tue Apr 28 11:18:11 UTC 2009

>From The Times:

April 28, 2009

Ken Russell on his film Lisztomania

Lisztomania, now released on DVD, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my infatuation with great composersI like geniuses. I particularly like musical geniuses. Which is why I collected more than 2,000 classical LPs (before they melted in a fire); made documentaries or films on G. Jacob, Prokofiev, Elgar (twice), Delerue, Bartók, Debussy, Delius, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Bax, Martinu, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Britten and Liszt; and wrote novels on Brahms, Elgar, Beethoven and Delius.

Of all my movies, Lisztomania (1975) may be either the biggest puzzler or most overlooked. As it’s being released on DVD on May 4, you now have a chance to see it yourself. Don’t just take my word that it’s utterly fantastic, which it is. Ask the producers David Puttnam or my friend Roy Baird, didn’t we have fun? It was the first movie to use the new Dolby stereo noise reduction sound system. And it was the only movie to star Ringo Starr as the Pope. In cowboy boots.

“Lisztomania” is not my word; it was coined in the 1840s by the writer Heinrich Heine to describe Liszt’s singular impact on crowds — mainly women — when he played the piano. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, ripping them to shreds in hysteria. His personality was charismatic, his skill at the piano unparalleled and his charitable streak genuine. He championed the music of contemporaries and alone raised money to preserve Beethoven’s home in Bonn. A touring musician, his world stage primarily centred on Rome, Weimar and Budapest; his inner world bouncing between musical composition, powerful women and a calling towards holy orders. He hung out with Mendelsohn, Berlioz, Borodin, Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Wagner, Brahms, the Schumanns. 
Picture this: Roger Daltrey, a gorgeous rock god from the seminal band The Who, plays Franz Liszt, a romantic classical composer from Hungary in the 1800s, riding astride a giant penis pulled by the women fans he has loved and been loved by.

Roger Daltrey, playing Franz Liszt, playing the piano like nobody’s business. It’s not easy to play those Liszt pieces. In fact, Liszt was the first person to turn the piano around sideways so that the audience could see him banging the keys.

Roger Daltrey, playing Franz Liszt, playing Chopsticks for the fans. Which Liszt did in real life.

Roger Daltrey, I mean Franz Liszt, playing Charlie Chaplin in a wonderful scene that could have been lifted from The Gold Rush.

Roger Daltrey, I mean Franz Liszt, taking religious vows as a “Franz-iscan” as women try to climb up under his robes.

Liszt, already raising a family with Marie d’Agoult, entering the simulated love-cave of Princess Carolyn (Wittgenstein), sliding helplessly into a giant red parachute of a maw .

The composer Rick Wakeman (of the rock band Yes, and keyboardist for Bowie, Cat Stevens, etc) as a metallic Viking.

Paul Nicholas playing Wagner as a megalomaniac, vampire and Antichrist, who is out for souls and will eventually capture Hitler’s.

Countess Marie d’Agoult, Georges Sand, Lola Montez, Princess Carolyn of Russia, Cosima Wagner, all these women so ravishingly interesting in history playing parts as Beloved Others in a carousel of groupies and wives.

Oliver Reed playing a momentary cameo — he should have had a bigger part. Georgina Hale is gorgeous, Melvyn Murray as Berlioz barely there. My wife Elise was in the film until Equity intervened. My editor Mike Bradsell plays a sycophantic Brahms in a scene immortalised by throwaway lines: “Piss off, Brahms” and “I’m not Johann, I’m Levi Strauss”.

In fact, there are moments as I watch the film when I get a giddy, dizzy feeling that I am watching “live” as Ken Russell, the promising director, vehemently and gleefully throws his heretofore victorious movie career away. Yah! Hurrah! Life is good! Yes indeedy!

Let me explain this “thing” with me and composers. I love them. They saved my life. I was in near-vegetable state, lost to nervous breakdown after the merchant navy for which I was so patently unfit, when the strains of Tchaikovsky coming over the radio dramatically changed my vibratory state, my rhythm, my soul, my being. I was alive again, I had purpose, even if just to find out what on earth this magical music would lead to.

It led to Elgar, Mahler, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Grieg, Holst, Copland, Bernstein; on and on in a sinuous wave, a tune, a toot, a drum and roar of triumph, sorrow, grandeur, ice and palaces, storms, skies, country fairs and rivers, rain, weeds, silence.

And the pictures! I had but to close my eyes with the music playing and before me a tapestry of living images rolled and thundered, hopping, skipping, snaking into intimations of immortal scenes that I swore I would capture with the cinematographer’s art. I seem to have a synaesthetic connection between music and vision — music makes pictures for me. I am often told by my wife that I have “bat ears”, every whisper and click is resoundingly loud for me at any distance.

Loving music so much, do I play it? Not a bit. I tried the piano. No talent. Though my mum often noted with pride that my hands were a lovely shape — “Our Ken’s got pianer fingers”.

Making film biographies or docudramas in tribute and celebration of the composers who opened up my narrow world and sent me forth charged up was the least I could do. Not able myself to invent the music that accompanied me as the soundtrack to my life, I would give honour to these masterful magicians of composition, whose lives were full of passion, bombast, humour, joy, jealousy, cruelty, torment, the macabre and magic. Love and ashes.

If Lisztomania seems vulgar or grotesque, well, in the context of 1975, as the tidal wave of free love and permission that had embraced the planet the previous ten years crashed to shore and gave us Performance, Barbarella and The Rocky Horror Show, it was perfectly in tune with the times.

That Lisztomania is being resurrected as a timeless cult classic may actually be dumb luck, but the tumultuous, gleeful, whirling dervish, Russian imperialism, Hungarian Gypsy energy, the “flying trapeze school of piano playing”, and Roger’s singing and acting, and Paul’s insane ebullience (sucking the compositions out of Liszt’s neck) — and, yes, the giant penis — well, you just can’t fault those, can you.

As Liszt said: “The public is always good. And truth is a great flirt.”

Lisztomania is released on DVD by Digital Classics on May 4

 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month! 


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