Director: Ken Russell
Writer: Ken Russell
Stars: Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas
Although the films of Ken Russell have always exhibited a strong penchant for the cinefantastique- from his earliest short subjects for the BBC and through the subsequent theatrical features- the deliberate use of fantasy as an integral facet of Russell’s cinematic vocabulary and style has become increasingly overt until, with films like Tommy and Lisztomania (and to a certain degree, the earlier Mahler), all barriers between the realistic and the fantastic modes have virtually ceased to exist.
At its most obvious Lisztomania is a wildly free-form biography of the nineteenth-century piano virtuoso and composer, Franz Liszt (1811- 1886). As such the film is a direct descendent of Russell’s BBC biographies Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964), The Debussy Film (1965), Song of Summer (1968), a chronicle of the last years of Frederick Delius, of the explosively controversial treatment of Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), and of such feature-length films as The Music Lovers (1970), a delirious version of Tchaikowsky’s life, and Mahler (1974).
The earliest of these endeavors was incredibly well received. Elgar being one of the most popular films ever aired by British television. However, beginning with the Strauss film (significantly, the one which most anticipates the style of Russell’s theatrical features), Russell’s energetic departure from a strict ”realism” and his ever-increasing emphasis on an imaginative restructuring of historical fact, began to regularly confound his critics. This confusion was in large part the inevitable result of many critics’ dogged insistence on evaluating works like The Music Lovers, Mahler and most recently Lisztomania, by the criteria of ”straight” biography. Far from being the screen’s equivalent of Grove’s Dictionary of Music, Ken Russell is an intuitive symbolist and fantasist, a total film-maker who orchestrates his subjects in much the same manner that a composer might transcribe a musical composition from one interpretive medium into another (as, for example, Liszt himself did with certain works by Wagner and Berlioz and other composers of the period) or as an instrumentalist might improvise variations on a given theme: Lisztomania, based on Russell’s own brief 57-page screenplay, was mostly shot, as is the director’s custom, ”in the head,” making the improvisational analogy that much more tenable. Shooting commenced on Feb. 3, 1975 at England’s Shepperton Studio Center, and was completed a quick fourteen weeks later.
Possessed of an uncanny instinct for correlating music, image and symbol, Russell is one of the few contemporary film-makers to appreciate the high-voltage potential of fantasy for use in ”legitimate” (i.e., non-horror, non-science fiction) films and thereby also to advance the neglected art of blending cinematic with musical techniques, music being the ideal adjunct for the realization of cinematic flights of fantasy. Deftly merging the two highly compatible areas of endeavor with an eye and ear unmatched since the early Disney, Russell has almost single-handedly forged a unique new genre, one which might be described as the ”documentary musical fantasy.”
A glance into the music dictionary provides some surprising insights into Russellian interpretation. Films like Mahler and Lisztomania exist not as conventional narratives drawn from cold, documented fact, but rather as ”fantasias” on the lives of the composers under consideration. A “fantasia” is described (in Elson’s Pocket version) as ”a species of musical form in which the composer yields to his imagination and gives free scope to his ideas, with little regard to restrictions in form; fancy, an imaginative caprice.”
To provide the raw material for his particular type of ”caprice,” Russell turns not to the biographer’s text, but to the music itself. At the conclusion of Lisztomania, Marie d’Agoult comments to Liszt: ”The bad is dead and gone. The best of us lives, enshrined in the music for everyone to share.” It is from this ”best”- all, finally, that concretely remains of the transient, often turbulent life of a creative artist- that Russell derives his inspiration. As John Baxter notes in his excellent book, An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell: ”Russell shows that the truth is found less in the events of an artist’s life than in his music and its effect on listeners.” Of Lisztomania the director himself said: ”Music for me is the most incredible event in the history of the human race. It comes from nowhere. You can’t expect the composer to fit into the usual idea of normal behaviour patterns. My film isn’t biography. It comes from things I feel when I listen to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and when I think about their lives.” Within the superb synthesis of music, feeling, effect, and image, ”with little regard to restrictions in form,” do Russell’s best moments reveal their dynamic power.