There’s a famous story about how Paddy Chayefsky, screenwriter of Network, who had it in his contract that none of the dialogue that he wrote for Altered States could be changed. That presented a problem for any director brave enough to tackle the speech and science heavy material and still assert themselves on the set, while still pleasing the financing studio, Warner Brothers. Director Ken Russell came up with a solution, a solution which became emblematic of how Chayefsky’s life and career were coming to an end, and he no longer had the strength to fight. What Russell did was to have the actors, such as William Hurt, Blair Brown, and Bob Balaban, scream the dialogue, mumble it, and have background noise to cause it to be unintelligible and whatever else he could come up with.
It wasn’t as if this was the first time Russell had done something as similarly prankish as to mask the dialogue. He even did it for Warner Brothers in 1975, when he made the rock musical bio-pic Lisztomania. In that case, the exposition is mostly garbled by the cast or obscured by music. An understandable decision when making a movie that has no basis in reality like Lisztomania (or his other previous musical composer biopics, The Music Lovers and Mahler), where facts and information are a nuisance. Any excuse to drift from the actual life of Franz Liszt is taken; his real-life rival Richard Wagner is eventually turned into a Frankenstein Nazi who corrals young blond children to form his master race and mows down Jews with his electric guitar machine gun (so the guitar gun wasn’t Robert Rodriguez’s original idea). While the Frankenstein Nazi with an electric guitar machine gun might be true, Franz Liszt died well before Hitler came into power. And you can see why Russell didn’t want to be stifled by dialogue and characters, especially considering who wrote the screenplay. That evil masked man totalitarian screenwriter? Ken Russell.
Surely the dictator known as Ken Russell lorded his power over feeble director Ken Russell, which is why Liszt (Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who) has an early scene where he’s wearing a Hugh Hefner robe and trying to avoid the screaming teenage girls who worship him. After all, Russell (according to his commentary) said that Liszt was the first real rock star, at least in the way we see them, and acting like Liszt is all 5 of The Beatles at once, while he Cossack and breakdances on top of his piano, is a fair assessment. Well, maybe 4 of The Beatles, as Lisztomania features Ringo Starr playing the pope, a pope who wears cowboy boots with spurs.
As you might imagine, Lisztomania doesn’t play nearly as well as it sounds, for one, the music is pretty dreadful, which is death to a movie that so much resembles an opera. Daltrey and Russell were coming off of Tommy, but there is nothing remotely catchy about the tuneless singing and cringe-inducing lyrics of Lisztomania. And for a movie that uses a very specific person to profile, at least as a jumping off point, there’s no consistency of vision. While anything might happen at any time in Lisztomania, that’s mostly because it feels thrown together and randomly assembled, unlike Brian De Palma’s thematically similar rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, made in 1972** and cost a lot less than Lisztomania. The freedom granted to Russell didn’t help him out, he just fell back on his standard phallic and Catholic imagery (and sometimes phallic Catholic imagery) that were at the center of every film he’s made since 1969’s Women in Love* up through his final theatrically released film, 1991’s Whore. When people say that a director’s oeuvre is really just one long film, it’s often cheeky and exaggerated, but not in the case of Russell, who probably would have made one 30 hour film, if he still would have been paid for 15 films.
That’s not to suggest that Russell was just earning a paycheck on Lisztomania, clearly his full attention was on the giant penis, or the giant penis marble columns, or the giant heavenly penis pedestal. In the midst of such absurdity, who could possibly seriously analyze a film that would easily qualify as a Monty Python parody… were there any jokes.
The closest Lisztomania comes to any notion of aesthetic coherence is the way that Roger Daltrey’s hair, which is very curly during the sex-filled opening act, straightens as he moves into the priesthood, and becomes less happy. It might be a very detailed double entendre; straight hair turns off your heterosexuality, while it also takes away your gayness (in the happy sense). There’s also a message about the shallowness of judging someone based on their clothing (“you put a Czar in a peasant’s clothes and he becomes a peasant”) and how the outward appearance, which is frankly worshipped through the entire movie, is meaningless. Yes, it’s a contradictory statement, but such is the profundity that is Lisztomania. Also, there’s a piano that farts fire.
* A case could be made that Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain, the 1967 sequel to The Ipcress File and A Funeral in Berlin, part of the long-running Harry Palmer series, also engage in phallic and catholic imagery, but it isn’t nearly as frequent or as explicit.
** Blasphemy as it may be, but 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a particularly accomplished film, even as just a campy rock musical. If the movie were better, there wouldn’t be much of a cult following it that simultaneously mocks and honors it.