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Tommy: A Phantasmorgic Kaleidoscopic Rock Opera that Continues to Stand the Test of Time

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Director Ken Russell’s Tommy, released in 1975 and based on the 1969 Who album of the same name, is a larger-than-life, eye-popping, commercial surrealist fantasy. It’s a movie where no one ever speaks except in song and characters occasionally look directly into the camera. It’s a movie where a pinball machine somehow works in the middle of a junkyard and the child and adult actors playing the title role have noticeably different eye colors, and yet none of this seems out of place within the film’s larger than life reality, or rather, unreality.

The film, based on an album which was labeled as the first rock opera, is about a boy who is rendered psychosomatically “deaf, dumb, and blind” after witnessing a murder, in the aftermath of which he is literally screamed into complicit silence. It was inspired in part by composer of the album and famed guitarist for the Who Pete Townsend’s own childhood. As a boy, Townsend experienced trauma and abuse after being sent to live with his mother’s mother, who turned out to be clinically insane. Said Townsend in an interview, quoting some of Tommy’s signature lyrics, “‘See me, feel me, touch me’? Where did that come from? It came from that little four-and-a-half-year-old boy in a f**king unlocked bedroom in a house with a madwoman. That’s where it came from.”

Lest you think the entire film is a rollercoaster ride through an ocean of darkness, Tommy, played here by the Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, later becomes a pinball champion and spiritual leader. Naturally. 

Interestingly, director Russell’s first impressions of the Who’s 1969 rock opera were not exactly favorable. “I took it home and played the first side, and I thought, ‘It’s the most awful rubbish I’ve ever heard.’”

Russell explains that he was initially approached to direct Tommy by “a producer I’d never heard of.” Townsend says Ken Russell was a first choice to direct “[b]ecause he was English” and “[b]ecause he was nuts.” The Who’s bass player, John Entwistle, would later describe Russell as “a psychopathic Father Christmas.”

But Russell later realized Tommy’s scenario resembled one he’d already written, entitled The Angels (a follow up to his earlier film, The Devils), about false religions, which he’d been unable to get off the ground. In it, Mia Farrow would have played a pop star turned perceived messiah. There were eerie similarities between his un-filmed screenplay and the story of Tommy, so Russell was excited to weave the two stories into one.

Russell, realizing there were also major holes in the story the album told, had Townsend write an entire prologue for the film in order to fill in those gaps. Townsend would also write an additional three to four numbers to help Russell further flesh out the story.

The style of the film fit perfectly with the reasons Russell became a filmmaker in the first place. Explained Russell, “The first time I really got an idea of how I could turn something into a film was when I heard [Tchaikovsky’s] Romeo and Juliet.” He realized, “I can put pictures to that. I must put pictures to that.” Continues Russell, “And so from that moment I decided it’s what I just had to do.”  

The entirety of Tommy is in fact music with accompanying pictures. Perhaps partially as a result, Russell said, “It was one of the easiest, most pleasurable films I’ve ever had to make.” 

“The image and the music backing it up to me was almost second nature. So it was a great joy to do this film because of my two favorite things: finding an amazing image and putting it with some amazing music.” 

My own personal first experience with Tommy, Ken Russell, and indeed one of its leads, Oliver Reed, was walking completely blind into a 2007 screening of Tommy in 70mm.  

Oliver Reed: that meaty, larger than life British actor who looks so full of life, energy, and intensity that it feels as though he might pop right out of the screen in order to wrestle you. (His naked wrestling scene in Russell’s earlier film Women in Love is infamous.) 

Ken Russell’s films have the same sort of delightful, insane bordering on unhinged energy. Yet Russell had some humorously disparaging things to say about Reed, admitting that he found him to be of limited acting ability. But he felt the camera loved him and that he could capture moods. So, Russell allegedly devised a “Moody 1,” “Moody 2,” and “Moody 3” cued shorthand for him to cycle through at the appropriate moments.

Russell went on to say about Reed, “He couldn’t sing a note [but h]e has a wry naughty quality which suits the film very much.”

Russell is so tongue-in-cheek that it’s difficult to know which of these comments were serious and which were merely a humorous dig. 

Russell was still very much alive and present at my 2007 screening (he passed away in 2011 at the age of eighty-four), and he was an eccentric delight. He refused to answer most of the questions asked of him, though I remember him responding to one question in improvised song. 

It seems worth noting here that the second and only other time I saw Russell speak — at a screening of his 1971 film, The Music Lovers — he, sitting alongside the film’s star, Richard Chamberlain, subversively remained seated at the back of the theater during his talkback to the audience, forcing the majority of the theater’s patrons to stand up and face backwards. Subversive, a little bit nutty, and original are all qualities that seem to describe this moment, as well as the man and his work. 

Russell has modestly stated in interviews, “Tommy is the only rock opera ever made.” 

It is in fact a tour de force of a film. Writer Joseph Lanza referred to it as a “sadomasochistic Sesame Street,” describing it as “a fantasy dominated by primary colors and cartoonish characters — a sadomasochistic variation on the heavy-handed image and message style associated with Sesame Street.” After seeing Russell’s film, it’s difficult to imagine this material in the hands of any other director. 

The film Tommy and my growing fascination with it is what led me to the Who, and not the other way around. Though I still claim to be no expert on the latter, it’s appropriate this film is showing in tribute to Tina Turner. The song she sings in the film, “The Acid Queen,” is the one track when comparing the movie’s soundtrack recording to the Who’s original 1969 album in which I feel the movie’s version is superior, precisely because of Turner’s performance and delivery.  

Commented Russell later, on Turner’s performance in the film, “I can’t imagine anyone doing it with the energy and drive that she brought to the role.”

Said Turner, laughing about having been cast, “I understood later that it was between either me or David Bowie, and I won.” Allegedly, Mick Jagger was also considered for the role but wanted to sing three of his own songs.

Some of the other supporting characters in the film are also notable. Jack Nicholson flew in to film for just one day while en route to the Cannes Film Festival. Keith Moon, the Who’s wildly talented but notorious drummer, who passed away prematurely at the age of thirty-two in 1978, appears as “Uncle Ernie,” the pedophile in whose care Tommy’s parents misguidedly leave him. Russell said that Moon, with his dark sense of humor, cherished the role. 

“He felt he was Uncle Ernie,” explained Russell. “Keith was very much into black comedy.” Russell said that Moon even suggested some of the props that his character carries in his “evil briefcase.”

As an introduction to the sequences showcasing Tommy’s abuse at the hands of some of the world’s worst nannies, (yes, there are more than one), there is a fascinating makeup and costuming effect employed. The normally stunning Ann-Margret looks increasingly bored and haggard as she piles unflattering layers of makeup onto her face while singing a duet with Reed (the two play Tommy’s parents) in an exchange that the film revisits three times. It feels like it visually conveys not only the inevitable monotony of marriage but their increasing resignation towards Tommy’s general wellbeing.

Ann-Margret received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in the film, which feels well-deserved.

Another very memorable if not infamous scene involving Ann-Margret (apparently Ann-Margret’s husband strongly objected to it) has her rolling around, covered head to toe in baked beans, laundry detergent, chocolate sauce, and other dubious-looking liquids.

The aforementioned concoction shoots out of the television set after she smashes it with a champagne bottle while trying escape the guilt of her grown son’s psychosomatic afflictions, which she herself helped create. It’s like an explosion of sexualized commercialism coming to a head and all over Ann-Margret, literally. She later straddles a giant, phallic pillow. A miner of dreamscapes, Russell’s style is not always so subtle.

This scene seems to be a nod to several things simultaneously. It references the Who’s 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, as well as Russell’s own frustrations with directing commercials earlier in his career. This entire scene also, as it turns out, was lifted directly from another project Russell had been unable to get off the ground before he was offered Tommy. Entitled Music, Music, Music, the story was about a composer who had to abandon his rock opera for lack of financing and instead write commercial jingles which resulted in “a crackup with all the products associated with his jingles, including baked beans, detergent and chocolate, all erupting through the TV screen and engulfing him in goo.”

According to Russell himself, Tommy is simply a story about enlightenment.

The film also contains a very cynical view of religion, which meshed well with ideas Russell had before embarking on the project. As a line in the film goes, “Buy your way to heaven, that comes to one pound, seven,” while the church that Tommy eventually starts hawks religious merchandise.

Early foreshadowing in the film, and one of its other most memorable scenes, shows religious zealots in a church in which the image of Marilyn Monroe is ecstatically worshipped. The shattering of such idols, sometimes literally, seems to be one of the deeper messages the film is trying to convey.

Tommy still holds up as a larger-than-life masterpiece and an experience best had on the big screen. As the American horror, fantasy, and science fiction film magazine Cinefantastique stated eloquently in their review of Tommy back in 1975, “The visceral effect on the audience of cutting each shot to the rhythms of each piece of music and on top of that synchronizing the movements of the actors and camera within the shot to those very same rhythms, is one aspect alone of Tommy that should occupy the minds of critics and filmmaking hopefuls for a long time to come.” Forty-eight years after its initial release, it would seem that it continues to do so.

Tommy screens Sunday, June 18th.
Sunday, June 18 – 2:30pm, 5pm


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