Nineteenth-century composer, a spaceship, comedy zombie Hitler, Pope Ringo, and a giant penis: it must have sounded so good on paper . . .
With The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975), Ken Russell created a very powerful style that intimidated producers and divided the critics. However, he came a cropper with this ugly, migraine-inducing and mind-numbing bore.
Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is here portrayed as a rock star, 1840-style, by Roger Daltrey of The Who. The shaggy-maned idol rips into his songs and the audience screams with excitement. Some ecstatic fans storm the stage, wanting simply to touch him. Some want to bear his child. One adoring woman announces she already has.
Russell portrays Liszt as a debauched celebrity pandering to public appetites with performances that are beneath his talent, while also spending much of his private time bouncing from one woman’s bedroom to the next.
Liszt’s sexual wanderings climax with a fantasy sequence during which Liszt grows a Godzilla-sized erection, which, at one point, several women straddle simultaneously. Perhaps Ken Russell misheard someone describing Liszt as Europe’s biggest pianist!
On instructions from the Pope (Ringo Starr), Liszt is charged with luring his former colleague, Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), back to Christianity. This doesn’t go well, because Wagner has become an evil scientist preoccupied with bringing the Norse god Thor (Rick Wakeman, seriously!) to life – although Thor, for some reason, wears the costume associated with the version of the character appearing in Marvel Comics of the 1960s and 1970s.
The film culminates in a spaceship attack by the ghost of Liszt on the zombie of Wagner, who is dressed as Adolf Hitler and rampaging around the city, killing Jews.
Sprinkled amid this nonsense are various scenes in which Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who and the star of Russell’s previous film, Tommy (released a few months earlier in 1975), sings original rock songs.
The result is a wild, kaleidoscopic romp, full of sexual symbolism, Carry On humour and Hammer horror send-ups – an epic of self-loathing, self-parody and self-destruction.
Countess Marie d’Agoult
Hans Von Bulow