Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Projector sees them, so you don't have to: Lisztomania & Valentino

LISZTOMANIA, 1975. Ken Russell must have been riding high after the success of TOMMY in 1975 (friends and I had to see it at a late night show), so maybe the producers of his next project on Liszt had similar hopes, which I imagine were quickly dashed when they saw the end result. 
I don’t remember LISZTOMANIA lingering around for very long, so never seen it until now. This now seems like a bad acid trip, the height of ‘70s pretentiousness – the central idea is great, to show the great composer as the rock star of his day, but the execution is a nightmare as we seem trapped in an endless rock concert, drably staged as Ken’s excesses run away with him – cue a giant plastic phallus being dragged to a guillotine as Liszt screams and those castrating women (think Glenda in THE MUSIC LOVERS) gleefully writhe and open their legs ….. Roger Daltry and his pals Paul Nicholas (Wagner as a vampire at one stage), Ringo Starr (the Pope, with movie star photos adorning his vestments) and Rik Wakeman painted silver must have thought they were hallucinating it all. Then theres the endless rows of young girls screaming for their hero …. 
Daltry was great in The Who (as I saw up close in 1968) but the movie camera does not love him in the same way – that wonky nose is too prominent and his performance, if one could call it such, is strictly one note, but perhaps he was just a pawn in his director’s increasingly deranged fantasies. With Sarah Kestleman, Fiona Lewis, Veronica Quilligan, and John Justin as the Count who has to duel with a naked Liszt swinging from chandeliers!  Oliver Reed also walks through. Those other Liszt films are masterpieces compared to this farrago. Does Trash get more lurid - or boring ? Ok, its absolute crap. 
Ken's stock must have been high then though, as opposed to his later years, as he could get rock stars and top names (like Nureyev) to appear in his increasingly bonkers movies, even in the '80s with Kathleen Turner, Tony Perkins etc. 

VALENTINO, 1977. More Ken excesses – this one though has a great central promise: Rudolph Nureyev at his peak as Rudolph Valentino, the great silent star who died in 1926. Nureyev bravely gives himself up to his director, who strips him naked at one stage, and he has a mesmerising charm of his own, being a great star impersonating another, though he looks nothing like the real Valentino, who died aged 31. I saw this at the time and remember Pauline Kael’s review where she hated it, particularly its depiction of the great Nazimova (Leslie Caron - below, with Michelle Phillips and Rudy as Valentino as Nijinski). Here Valentino is at the mercy of predatory women like his wife Natasha Rambova  (Michelle Phillips); Felicity Kendal is June Mathis, the scriptwriter who discovered Valentino and fashioned his image as The Sheik, and there are crude depictions of Fatty Arbuckle and those venal, greedy studio heads like Jesse Lasky. Ken himself plays Rex Ingram. Its all like a vicious cartoon of the 1920s as atmosphere is trowelled on with all those interiors and cars and costumes, starting with that over the top funeral parlour scene, it all must have cost United Artists a fortune – 
this and Scorsese’s overblown NEW YORK NEW YORK (which I love dearly) must have proved very expensive for them. 
Nureyev at least looks great as the ballroom dancer with his animal-like grace and sense of humour, he dances quite a lot actually. Huge liberties are taken though like that whole ‘pink powderpuff’ and that fight in the ring, which are pure Russell fantasies. Russell’s wife Shirley again provides the over the top costumes. The magazines, below, had a field day ...
After the success of WOMEN IN LOVE and THE MUSIC LOVERS and the oddball charm of THE BOYFRIEND, audiences soon got tired of Ken’s excesses, TOMMY though was a pop hit and his later films had varying success. I quite liked his later, less expensive, THE RAINBOW and his BBC version of LADY CHATTERLEY, he was ideal for D.H. Lawrence.  I didn’t see SAVAGE MESSIAH or MAHLER which may be much better and of course there are always his great early BBC films on Elgar, Delius, Rossetti and Isadora Duncan, showing Ken’s early genius in full flight.  
Tomorrow: we tackle NIJINSKI from 1980 ! 


  1. *Gasp* Uncle Ken boring? Never! I must admit to enjoying LISZTOMANIA purely from a madcap eccentric cartoonish POV.

    Valentino is, however, a disappointment I agree. It cost a cool $5 mil to make, the most expensive Ken feature, but even he himself would go on to call it 'the biggest mistake of his career' and even ask 'what idiot made this?' I must confess to wondering why he even tackled it, as you say he certainly added so much fiction he may as well just made a story up. The powderpuff stuff I believe did dog Valentino - and it was always Ken's instinct that he was in the closet - but yes the boxing match, though mooted, never happened in reality.

  2. PS I adore Mahler, it's a strange halfway house between Ken's early Monitor profiles of the great composers and his later surreal grotesquery.

  3. Lisztomania was certainly bonkers but even that got boring eventually, as it all bore little relation to the real Liszt story - even dragging Wagner up as Hitler with swastikas seemed just par for the course, the film just looks ugly and not very visual as it all seems filmed in that concert hall.

    I should see MAHLER and particularly SAVAGE MESSIAH, where Dorothy Tutin and a young Helen Mirren shine.