Lisztomania – a film review

This year sees the fortieth anniversary of the film Lisztomania, an outrageous fantasy biopic on the life of Franz Liszt, written and directed by the unashamed bad boy of British cinema, Ken Russell (1927-2011).  Heavily polemical, it is both a surreal rock opera and an unhinged send-up of the entire composer biopic genre and contains something to offend just about everyone.

The film stars The Who’s lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, who plays Franz Liszt as a foul-mouthed Cockney and bed-hopping lothario trying to redeem himself through his music. The 1970s heart-throb Paul Nicholas is on splendid demented form playing Liszt’s ‘arch nemesis’ Richard Wagner, and The Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr appears as a Liverpudlian Pope. Even the progressive rock musician Rick Wakeman gets a look-in, not only writing and performing the soundtrack but also appearing in a scene-stealing role as an incontinent, reanimated Siegfried/Thor.

The tenor of the film is quickly established in the opening scene with the philandering Liszt caught in flagrante delicto with the Countess Marie d’Agoult by her husband. A swordfight ensues, worthy of a Benny Hill sketch, with the Countess exclaiming at one point “Don’t cut off … his talent!”

Buried in all the mayhem that follows, the film covers familiar historical ground: Liszt’s opulent but unsustainable lifestyle as a travelling virtuoso pianist with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, his later quest for musical respectability with the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein at Weimar,  his rivalry with Richard Wagner, and his troubled relationship with his daughter, Cosima.  Not that you would notice any of this, unless of course you paid attention!

The treatment of Wagner is the most overblown and polemical in the film. He first appears as a pushy young upstart dressed in a white sailor’s suit, wearing a cap emblazoned “Nietzsche”. He is next seen as a revolutionary fugitive and vampire in Weimar where he bites Liszt’s neck and steals his manuscripts. In the scene at ‘Wagner’s castle’, he is dressed as the DC Comics hero Superman, leading a fascist rally in a kindergarten. He is later killed in an epic confrontation with Liszt (who wields a flame-throwing piano) but is later resurrected as Frankenstein’s monster (complete with Hitler moustache) and starts his killing spree of the local Jewish populace with a machine gun guitar. It takes the might of the harp-playing Liszt to return from heaven in a spaceship to finish him off in the blackened ruins of Berlin, zapping him with a hail of rockets. The film closes to the strains of a rock version of the third Liebesträume.

Lisztomania film poster
Lisztomania film poster

I first saw this film as an impressionable student (and huge Liszt fan) but I confess that I stumbled out of the cinema, dazed, and wondering what on earth I had just seen. The visual style of the film is Ken Russell at his most uninhibited and provocative. He pays homage to other genres (such as the Hammer horror and Flash Gordon films) and his surreal treatment of the Roman Catholic Church is reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s Roma. He even includes a touching skit on the film The Gold Rush with Roger Daltrey playing Charlie Chaplin in a tender love song.  There are plenty of visual gags too, such as the walls of Princess Carolyne’s boudoir displaying icons of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Elton John and Pete Townsend, all painted in the style of Russian Orthodox saints. And who could possibly forget Ringo Starr’s papal gown, sporting images of Judy Garland?

Russell mercilessly lampoons the conventional stiff upper lip biopics (such as Song without End, starring Dirk Bogarde as Liszt) by using comically stilted dialogue to fill in a largely accurate back story, including Liszt’s early life and the revolutionary turmoil in Europe. In one scene we even learn that the Princess is writing  her 24-volume behemoth Des causes intérieures de la faiblesse extérieure de l’Église (“The interior causes for the external weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church”).  Strange, but true.

Ken Russell said of his films “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business … I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people”.  Throughout his career Russell produced many acclaimed, and sometimes faithful  biopics of composers (such as Elgar, Delius, Debussy, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Mahler and Arnold Bax) but with Lisztomania he seems to have had the most fun ruffling feathers.

Popular on its release but panned by critics, Lisztomania has never achieved the same cult status as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (released in the same year) and it is not difficult to see why. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a simpler plot (a maniacal reworking of the Hansel and Gretel fable), a catchier soundtrack and some memorable star turns. But for aficionados, it does seem tame in comparison to Lisztomania, the more subversive and visually arresting of the two films.

Perhaps it would have been different if Russell had ditched the biopic format altogether and instead gone flat-out for a cartoonish romp called, say, “Wagner must Die!” Who knows, it might just work as a Baz Luhrmann remake.

Notable music


  1. Piano Concerto no.1 in E-flat major. The opening bars are used to dramatic and comic effect in several places, played by heavy brass
  2. Fantasia on themes from Wagner’s Rienzi. Played to the gallery in the opening concert with Roger Daltrey dressed as Liberace.
  3. Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Melodies (Hungarian Fantasia). Played in its original form and elsewhere sung as an anthem by Roger Daltrey.
  4. Faust Symphony. A theme is sung by the Princess Carolyne at the climax of the notorious castration sequence when she operates a guillotine, the inference being that Liszt makes a Faustian pact to compose music by forfeiting his manhood.
  5. Funérailles from the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Sung by Roger Daltrey as an anthem for lost youth of the 1848 Hungarian uprising.
  6. Liebesträume no 3. Sung by Roger Daltrey.
  7. Symphonic Poem. ‘Orpheus’. A favourite of Wagner’s, this piece is mentioned as one that Wagner stole although the song by Roger Daltrey bears only a passing resemblance.
  8. Totentanz for piano and orchestra. Used in the dramatic face-off between Liszt and Wagner, Liszt’s flame-throwing piano causing rubble to fall and kill Wagner.

Interestingly Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody (his most famous composition) is absent, but even Liszt banned this piece from his own master classes for being over-played.

Boris Godunov, Coronation scene. Used to striking effect when Liszt first visits the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Russia.

Euphemia Allen (pseudonym Arthur de Lulli)
Chopsticks (‘The Celebrated Chop Waltz’). Yup, that’s right, Chopsticks. In 1880, Liszt contributed a prelude to a volume of paraphrases by Borodin, Cui, Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shcherbachyov. In the film, Roger Daltrey’s playing of the Rienzi paraphrase flits into a painfully vulgar rendition of the melody to the delight of the adoring, bonnet-throwing female audience, who sing along enthusiastically.

Memorable quotes
“P*ss off, Brahms!”

Overall Rating
3/5. Love conquers all.


Kevin Painting

Published 20 October 2015 on primephonic

Header image courtesy of

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