Lisztomania [1975]

Lisztomania, Ken Russell's follow-up to Tommy (both films were released in 1975) finds him even more in the mood for desultory spectacle than his garish pop artistry adapting the Who's rock opera. Seeking to tell the story of superstar composer Franz Liszt through a freewheeling series of pop allegories, kitsch, quotes, and pastiches, Russell hopes to reflect in contemporary terms the runaway train of Liszt's celebrity, love life, and alleged rivalry with Richard Wagner. Roger Daltrey, the Who vocalist and star of Tommy, returns to Russell's circus as Liszt, a great pianist nevertheless seduced by the ease with which he can make women squeal by playing flamboyant renditions of "Chopsticks." Floating on a sea of groupies, Liszt struggles with the possibilities of real love while also encountering the vampiric Wagner's exotic plans for world domination. Intuitive impressions, not history, are what this film experience is for, and toward that end Russell pulls out all the stops, planting Liszt into a heartbreakingly Chaplinesque short film, casting Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman as a cryogenic viking, and placing the hero in phallic jeopardy when his genitals are subjected to a guillotine. Some of this striking stuff works, some of it doesn't, but all of it is determinedly undisciplined. With Paul Nicholas as Wagner, and Ringo Starr as the Pope (!). --Tom Keogh

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