The term "Lisztomania" was coined by the German romantic literary figure Heinrich Heine to describe the massive public response to Liszt's virtuosic piano performances. At these performances, there were allegedly screaming women, and the audience was sometimes limited to standing room only.
This film was first to use the new Dolby Stereo sound system.
Rather than presenting a straightforward narrative, the film tells of Liszt's life through a series of surrealistic episodes blending fact and fantasy, and full of anachronistic elements. At the start of the film, Liszt is caught in bed with Marie d'Agoult by her husband the Count d'Agoult. The Count challenges Liszt to a fight with sabres but Marie begs the count to let her share Liszt's fate. The Count then orders his staff to trap Liszt and Marie into the body of a piano, nailing it shut, and then leaving it on railroad tracks.
The scene is then shown to be a flashback triggered by the camera flash of photographers backstage before one of Liszt's concerts. Richard Wagner appears and Liszt introduces him to his circle of colleagues including Gioachino Rossini, Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Chopin, and Hans von Bülow. Liszt then pays Wagner to allow him to perform a variation on a theme from Rienzi. At the concert, Wagner is put off by Liszt's crowd-pleasing showmanship at the expense of serious musicianship, which includes adding the melody of Chopsticks to his Rienzi variation. However the crowd, consisting entirely of young screaming girls, go wild at Liszt's performance, storming the stage. Liszt uses von Bülow to proposition potentially wealthy females in the audience during his performance. One of them is Princess Carolyn, who relays to Liszt her address in Russia.
The next scene shows Marie's and Liszt's domestic life plagued by jealousy over his constant touring and his infidelities. At this point they have three children, the oldest being Cosima. Domestic life has also strained Liszt's creativity. Liszt prepares to depart to St. Petersburg to play for the Tsar. Marie threatens to abandon him if he decides to go. Liszt then suggests to Cosima that he would sell his soul to the Devil to be able to compose brilliant music again. As Liszt is leaving, Cosima consoles him that she will pray to God every day so that Liszt will meet the Devil and be able to sell his soul to him.
In Russia, Liszt meets Princess Carolyn at her court. She begins to seduce him, offering him the ability to compose the brilliant music he wanted in exchange for total control of his life. In one of the most ostentatious scenes of the movie, Liszt then experiences a hallucination where the women of Princess Carolyn's court assail him but then become seduced by his music which strokes his libido and gives him a 10-foot erection. Carolyn sinisterly observes from afar as the women celebrate his giant erection with a chorus line. The women then drag Liszt and his erection to a guillotine in which Carolyn reveals that the bargain for Liszt's newfound musical prolificity is the forfeiture of his libertinism.
The next scene shows Liszt in Dresden during the May Uprising, conflicted about not supporting his friends in the revolt and spending all his time isolated to compose music. Wagner, now a political criminal on the lam, reappears and asks Liszt for money so that he can escape the country with his family. As Liszt tends Wagner's wounds, Wagner secretly drugs Liszt, who passes out. Wagner then reveals himself to be a vampire with a mission to write music that will inspire a new German nationalism. He then proceeds to suck Liszt's blood and compose on the piano. Before departing, Wagner leaves him his latest political pamphlet, a Superman comic (a play on Friedrich Nietzsche's Superman).
Liszt and Carolyn travel to the Vatican to get married after the Pope agrees to grant her a divorce from her husband. The wedding is ultimately voided by the intervention of her husband and the Tsar. Furious at the Pope's political impotence, Carolyn threatens to write an anthology on her disagreements with the Church (Causes intérieures de la faiblesse extérieure de l'Église en 1870). Liszt then proposes that he will join the Church as an abbot.
Liszt's life as an abbot is shown to be disobedient as he is caught in bed with a woman. The Pope then explains that Wagner has seduced Cosima as his wife and has begun to lead a devilish cult organised around his music. He tasks Liszt with travelling to Wagner's castle to exorcise him and return him to the Christian faith or else Liszt will be excommunicated and his music banned.
Liszt travels to Wagner's castle, where he observes a secret ritual portraying a devilish Jew raping several blonde-haired Germanic nymphs. Wagner then appears with Cosima, dressed in Superman outfits, and sings how "the flowering youth of Germany was raped by 'the beast'" and that a "new messiah" will soon arrive to drive out the beast. At the conclusion of the song, Cosima marches the audience, composed entirely of children, out with a Nazi salute as they chant that they "will be the master race".
Liszt confronts Wagner, who is unaware of what Liszt has seen, and inquires about his ambitions. Wagner confesses that he has been building a mechanical Viking Siegfried to rid the country of Jews. When Wagner awakens Siegfried with his music, the creature turns out to be crass and slow-witted. Liszt sneaks holy water into Wagner's drink but the water has no effect. Wagner then reveals himself to Liszt as a vampire and threatens to steal his music so that Wagner's Viking can live. Liszt rushes to the piano and plays music, exorcising Wagner and bringing him to near death. Cosima, witnessing Wagner's moribund state, imprisons Liszt and then resurrects Wagner in a Nazi ceremony as a Frankenstein-Hitler wielding a machine-gun guitar. Trapped, Liszt observes as Cosima leads the Wagner-Hitler to gun down the town's Jews, after which she kills Liszt by stabbing a needle through the heart of a voodoo doll made in his likeness.
In Heaven, Liszt is reunited with the women he has romanced in his life and Cosima, though it is never explained how she got there after killing Liszt, who regret their behaviour towards him and each other and finally live in harmony. In the final episode, Liszt and the women decide to fly down to Earth in a spaceship to destroy Wagner-Hitler who has now ravaged Berlin in a fiery machine-gun frenzy. Once Wagner-Hitler is destroyed, Liszt sings that he has found "peace at last".
The American critic Pauline Kael wrote,
In a couple of sequences, it erupts successfully with a wholehearted, comic-strip craziness, but for all his lashing himself into a slapstick fury, the director Ken Russell can't seem to pull the elements of film making together."
The German reviewer Hans C. Blumenberg, reviewing the film for Die Zeit summed up the film as follows:
With Russell, who had succeeded in producing an artist portrait of bizarre precision with Mahler, Lisztomania is only a tiring litany of cabaret numbers, which, by means of anachronisms, pseudo-critical analogies, and daring casting choices (for example, Ringo Starr as a pope) gains conviction. [...] In Lisztomania, an exorbitantly vicious berserker drifts at the ruins of his talent, loses himself in an abundance of highly disparate incidents, which nevertheless only ends in shrill monotony."
Another German reviewer, Hans J. Wulff devoted a six-page article to the film, and commented:
The films break with the tradition of biographical narration and stage music and music culture in a wild collage in which heterogeneous material is brought together. Lisztomania is among the most widely known of Russell's films, at the same time most complex and still most irritating. [...] The fascination of Lisztomania is the method. The entire [Western] cultural history is the material with which Russell designs his montage, indifferent whether it is high or trivial culture. Much cultural knowledge, though highly controlled, is the theme of the film, giving it expression and vividness."
The film received few positive reviews, with Roger Ebert giving it three out of four stars.
Leonard Maltin gives the film one and a half stars out of four, while the Golden Movie Retriever said WOOF!".
Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt
Sara Kestelman as Princess Carolyn
Paul Nicholas as Richard Wagner
Ringo Starr as The Pope
Rick Wakeman as Thor
John Justin as Count d'Agoult
Fiona Lewis as Marie d'Agoult
Veronica Quilligan as Cosima Wagner
Nell Campbell as Olga Janina
Murray Melvin as Hector Berlioz
Andrew Faulds as Johann Strauss II
Kenneth Colley as Frédéric Chopin
Lisztomania currently holds a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on seven reviews.