Boy-oh-boy, did Ken Russell's film version of the Who's Tommy have an effect on me when I first saw it in 1975. I saw it dozens of times. I wanted to go and live in the film. I wanted Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" boots. Tommy may have been one of the first films that demonstrated to me what a director actually does, what the director brings to the party, so to speak.
Lisztomania is awful. It may be one of the most willfully annoying films I have ever seen. Writer/director Russell takes a few facts about famous composer Franz Liszt (his live concerts were a sensation/he was Richard Wagner's benefactor, even though Wagner stole his music/Wagner's music was a favorite of the Nazis/Liszt wound up as an abbot in the Catholic church, etc.) and turns them into an obnoxious Cinemax-style "spicy, late-night" film.
While I am relatively sure that Franz Liszt possessed a penis (my thorough scouring of the historical records failed to conclusively prove he DIDN'T have a penis) and that his various paramours possessed breasts, I do not understand why a film about Franz Liszt need focus so obsessively on these anatomical givens. In Lisztomania, Russell channels his inner thirteen year-old by giving us a parade of phallus, breast, phalluses, breasts, phallic decor, breasts, breasts, breasts, a ten-foot phallus that five women dance on, breast, breast, phallus, phallus, and phallus.
I may have missed a phallus or two.
It's as if Russell is farting in my face, and when I object to the fart, I am reminded that Russell's fart was in the service of art, because really he's MAKING A POINT about farting, so if I am offended, that's on ME. It still smells bad. Dude, what the hell have you been eating?
Imagine a breast-obsessed thirteen year-old reading Franz Liszt's Wikipedia page while devouring some bad pad Thai and then going straight to bed. The film Lisztomania chronicles the resulting nightmare. I have seen more than my share of offensive films. What rankles here is Liszt-O-Mania's aggressive offensiveness.
Lizst escapes the box. His live concerts are a sensation, and he is visited backstage by fellow composer Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas, who plays Cousin Kevin in Tommy). Though Liszt plays some of Wagner's music onstage, he is upset that Liszt's version of "Chopsticks" receives more acclaim (even though Euphemia Allen didn't compose "Chopsticks" until much later in Liszt's life--I can look stuff up too, Russell!) Have I mentioned that this Richard Wagner parades around in a Donald Duck-style sailor costume with "Nietzsche" stitched on the hat?
Franz and Marie are now married, and they have three children. Franz must tour incessantly to earn a living. He is called to Russia for a series of concerts, but once in Saint Petersburg is seduced by Princess Caroline (Sara Kestelman.) This plot turn leads to a fantasy sequence involving Liszt's comically enlarged genitalia.
The actors all seem adrift or slumming. You know that you are not dealing with an "actor's film" if Ringo Starr gives the least embarrassing performance. Roger Daltry, who was so good and "natural" in Tommy, here shamelessly overacts with a performance that consists entirely of three grimaces: surprise, happiness, shock (lather, rinse, repeat).
A recent documentary on The Who's Quadrophenia album included Pete Townsend arguing with the conventional wisdom that Keith Moon was the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time. Townsend—who remember, babies, was one of the late drummer's best friends—opined that sometimes, his songs cried out for simplicity, and Moon was utterly incapable of that, cramming every second of every song with unnecessary fills and filigree. Ken Russell is the Keith Moon of movie directors.
Lisztomania is available from Warner Archive as an MOD DVD. Don't.