Monday, September 18, 2006

The Birth of Pop: Ken Russell's "Lisztomania" (1975) review


To many, this film is the stunning proof that director Ken Russell never had it and that idiocy and egotism were mistaken for genius. You could say mistaking idiocy and egotism for genius has been the appeal of rock music all along!

Others might say that Russell is simply childish or immature, and that his films are the "masturbatory fantasies" of an overgrown-adolescent. This belief is unfounded. Consider this film part-autobiography and the problems faced by most artists who have to battle for control over the direction of their work with their backers, their "patrons." Before there was even a notion of "capitalism," artists have had to fight to protect their visions from the very people they're dependent on to realize those dreams.


Is this film over-indulgent? Yes it is, dear readers, very-much-so, because it is art and not entertainment. That said, if you chuck any expectations, this is also a funny film and allegory about the rise of pop culture in the 19th Century.

Russell's Lisztomania ( phrase coined while the composer was at the height of his powers) draws parallels between Liszt's fame and that other generally hollow spectacle known as "rock." That's not to say Russell dislikes Liszt's music or that he views it as meaningless--the contrary is true. What Russell hates is the empty spectacle. But this is great filmmaking, and it should be noted that it has similarities between itself and another film of the same year, "Rocky Horror," and even "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," as they examine and explore the relationships between sexuality and pop culture. It really is true that women threw their underwear at Franz Liszt during his performances and that he had many-many lovers, 19 th century "proto-groupies."

Lisztomania is also that very odd bridge between "classic" arena rock and the emergent punk movement of the time. The film can be seen as a statement that "rock" is not really subversive or rebellious at all, but ultimately arch-conservative and repressive. Amen. It's just a hilarious, wild romp that will make your guests extremely nervous, which films all great films should do. Movies should challenge people to think and reflect, at least occasionally.

Ironically (or perhaps not-at-all), Mr. Russell had previously contracted Malcolm MacLaren and Vivienne Westwood to design the S&M costumes for his film, "Mahler." It should also be noted that "Liszt-O-Mania" was released exactly the same year that MacLaren's shop "SEX" shop opened on King's Row; the rest is, as they say, history. It couldn't be more camp considering it has Little Nell in it, but it would be without her.

Basically put, this is about the the ins-and-outs of "why" we want and need pop culture and WHAT we generally want from our "pop idols" (sex and some form of wish-fulfillment, naturally). One could say this film criticizes the absurd spectacle that rock had become by 1975, and this theme pops-up often throughout the film, but Russell was never a fan. No, this psychological comic book portrait goes much deeper into the relationship between artist and patron. Nowadays, the patrons are the mass audience, something that was just emerging from the industrial and commercial age. Once, it was just the aristocracy, now the mob has been added.

Sexuality is about mass psychology, so Wilhelm Reich gets-his-due here in some areas, and there is a plethora of Freudian imagery, which is something you expect from Russell. Lisztomania is certainly a very personal film for the director and probably amuses him as much as it does myself that it enrages so many critics (definitely a "get-screwed" message to all of them), but it should be noted that some of the absurdity and excess came from the producer of the film, not Mr. Russell. The enfant terrible director has complained about the opening country song in his autobiography "Altered States," and that there were other aspects of the production he didn't want in the film. Perhaps. Yet Russell tends to enrage all the right people, and that's what at least some film-making should be.


God love this lapsed Catholic, and God love his ways. Lisztomania is a flawed part of his canon, but a very watchable and educational one. As Russell began his career doing documentaries and impressionistic films on composers for the BBC, it makes a kind of sense that this is considered one of his most heretical works since it goes well beyond his work for television in the 1960s...until one becomes aware of his banned "Dance of the Seven Veils" about Richard Strauss.

Critics of the film tend to trot out the BBC documentaries as a yardstick, yet this isn't so far removed from "Dance of the Seven Veils," a film that also utilized the same psychosexual comic book approach of Strauss's and Hitler's fateful relationship.
Liszt and Wagner's fateful relationship is portrayed in similar terms and imagery, namely that of National Socialism. Dance of the SevenVeils got him booted from the BBC for nearly twenty years. It's hard to generalize about Russell's career, except perhaps on a thematic level, but he's always willing to rile.

It's interesting to note that the 1980s was the period of his purest work, due mainly to a three-picture deal with the now-defunct Vestron pictures. But the standard view of many of his sharpest critics is that it was a fallow decade. The opposite is true.

The 1970s were actually a very mixed-bag for Russell, as evinced by Lisztomania and Valentino, and he continued to struggle for artistic control over his films as the decade rolled-on. He isn't entirely pleased with Lisztomania, but Russell definitely had some fun with the material, and so, there it is. This is hardly one of his best films and surely not his worst. What it is is a real laugh riot. I think it's a hoot, which means it isn't on DVD.