Lisztomania Or Bust

As the great Thirstin Howl III once said, "you can lose, or you can lose. Those are your options."  Was he talking about rap battles or the state of Ken Russell's Lisztomania on home video?  No one can say for sure.  But if you'll bear with me, maybe we can put a better shine on it.  If we were to take one quarter-full glass, in this case the Warner's UK Digital Classics DVD, and another (Warner Archives' US MOD DVDR), and combined them, then it would only take the right attitude to see that our glass is at least half full... right?  It's another one of those combine and create your own special edition situations, except it's still a fairly mediocre special edition.
Lisztomania is Russell's most outrageous picture, which is really saying something.  It's another musical, like Tommy (it even stars Roger Daltry again) with wild, over-the-top imagery, but this time also pulling in Russell's most frequent cinematic obsession: biographing classical composers, in this case the 19th century's Franz Liszt.  There's even a Chaplin-inspired silent segment, a la Peepshow.  So as his composer documentaries grew to be more and more like feature films, it dovetailed perfectly with the musicals.  You might say the only element missing is the cult horror side of his filmography, but uh, did I mention that this film has a vampire?  Oh, and a Frankenstein's monster version of Hitler, created in a dark and spooky castle, who goes on a mass murder rampage with an electric guitar/ machine gun?  Yeah, I'd say this one covers all the bases.
Lisztomania also feels more like a proper narrative movie with musical numbers, because it was created for the screen, as opposed to Tommy, where you can feel its staged production roots.  The title is in reference to the notion that Franz Liszt was an early celebrity, the rock star of his day, and there's a big scene where he performs in front of a great mob of screaming 19th century teenage girls like famous footage of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.  So this film is big on spectacle (Ringo Starr plays the pope), but has more dramatic weight than Russell's other musicals because it's also exploring the life of a real, person that Russell is invested in, and who butts heads with Wagner and all his future historic implications.
1) 2009 UK Digital Classics DVD; 2) 2012 US Warner Archives DVDR.
The framing is very close across the two discs, apart from the Digital Classics being non-anamorphic (I've left the negative space around the first set of shots to show how that plays out on modern televisions).  We just shift ever so slightly from 2.40:1 to 2.37:1, with WA shaving a little off each side.  Neither disc is interlaced.  And, of course, it's not even a properly pressed disc; it's a burnt DVDR.  The DC DVD has stronger colors compared to the AW DVDR, which is brighter and lower contrast, though that does same some detail from getting crushed out, and gives the image a more naturalistic look.  Both are SD, but being non-anamorphic does necessarily make the DC disc lower res.  It's also PAL, if that bothers you (in a music-centric film, sound can be extra important, so the slight pitch-up could annoy some listeners more than usual).

Speaking of sound, both discs just have the one Dolby stereo track, lossy of course, with no subtitle options.
Now, the big reason the UK DVD is still in the picture, given that WA given us the superior, if still under-whelming presentation, is that only the UK DVD includes an audio commentary by Ken Russell himself.  That said, it's not one of his better commentaries, with Russell sounding tired and leaving long stretches of silence.  But considering he's no longer with us, this is a historic treasure to preserve, and he does have some good insight to contribute, after all.  The UK DVD also has the trailer and an 8-page booklet with notes by Paul Sutton, author of Ken Russell's authorized biography.
So on the one hand, you've got a the reasonably watchable US disc.  But it's still SD, and a DVDR at that.  On the other hand, you've got a pressed UK disc with important special features.  And on neither hand have we got an HD image, subtitles, or a lack of painful compromise.  There was a 2018 DVD reissued in the UK, which I believe at least gave us the film anamorphic on a properly pressed disc, giving it a slight advantage over our US counterpart, but missing the extras.  And of course, DVD-only in 2018, what gives?  It's certainly not something to double or triple-dip for.  Either way, we're still left to import and combine disappointing DVDs to make the best of what we've got.  I suppose that's not as bad as not having these options.  But obviously, the ideal situation would be a new blu-ray with everything.  But so far there's no sign of that happening.  Warner Bros, where are you?

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