writer + editor

The Music Lover

>This article appeared on my blog, Looker, in 2010.

After last night’s screening of Lisztomania, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s salubrious “Russellmania” series, the film’s 83-year-old writer and director, Ken Russell, answered the audience’s questions from his seat at the center of the Walter Reade Theater. Lisztomania, from 1975, stars Roger Daltrey as the composer Franz Liszt (Daltrey also had the title role in Russell’s Tommy, released earlier that year), and it’s totally, exhilaratingly nuts. Liszt is portrayed as a rock star who in one scene sprouts a 10-foot penis, and Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas on a gleeful tear) progresses from music thief to vampire to a Frankenstein-Hitler who mows down Jews with an electric-guitar machine gun. Ringo Starr plays the Pope.

Russell, who at 83 looked regal, with leonine white hair, sat between his wife and Richard Golub, the lawyer who successfully defended him 23 years ago against a suit brought by the Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. (Russell was “the best witness I ever had,” Golub said.) The first audience comment came from a self-described child of Holocaust survivors, who thanked Russell for “having the balls to make this movie.” Filmmaker Q&As are inevitably cursed with tedious questions like “What was your budget?” or “What kind of camera did you use?” When someone asked, “How many shooting days did you have?” Russell replied, “Two or three.”

Why a film about Liszt? “Because I’d already made one about Strauss.” (That would be the notorious 1970 BBC movie Dance of the Seven Veils; by 1975 he’d made films about Mahler and Tchaikovsky as well.) Was Liszt was the first pop star? “Yes, I think he was. And the last.” What was Roger Daltrey like? “A great guy.” (Nice to know, but Daltrey’s performance is Lisztomania’s weakest link.) How was it working with the producer David Puttnam? “Next question,” he said, then explained that he had written a more or less straightforward script before Puttnam encouraged the rock element. His favorite rock star? “Beethoven.” How did Liszt fans respond to the movie? “I don’t think there were any left.” What was it like seeing the film again after 35 years? “There are some things I object to.” Such as? “It’s too clean.”