Tommy (1975)

Review by BP Flanagan @manlikeflan

Directed by

Ken Russell

Starring

Ann-Margret Oliver Reed Roger Daltrey

Anticipation.

The Who are just the CSI guys at this point.

Enjoyment.

Each scene is a new adventure! One of Ken Russell’s highest aesthetic achievements.

In Retrospect.

Can’t get it out of my head, for better and worse.

Back in cinemas courtesy of the BFI, this adaptation of The Who’s rock opera is as wildly entertaining as ever.

It’s been said that every musician tries to be cinematic, while filmmakers are praised for musicality. Perhaps no film expresses that more clearly than Tommy, Ken Russell’s 1975 adaptation of The Who’s rock opera. The story, which is little more than a framework for music and images, starts at Tommy’s trauma of witnessing his parents commit a terrible crime sends poor Tommy deaf, dumb and blind, as the song goes. As an adult, played by frontman Roger Daltrey, his heightened sense of touch leads him to discover pinball, becoming a media phenomenon and eventually, a kind of cult leader.

Released a full six years after the album, Tommy set the rock opera template, inspiring everyone from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Green Day. But the overblown, arguably pretentious music is really nothing without Russell’s genuinely avant-garde storytelling; his expressive approach to actors and keenly ironic sense of humour. He winks at the music, but takes the messianic prophecy of the story incredibly seriously. Russell switches between theatrically composed shots to documentary, Haskell Wexler-like newsreel footage, which pulls us in and out of emotional engagement with the scene.

From track to track, Tommy leaps around in form, the images following suit. The prologue, detailing Ann-Margaret’s doomed romance with Tommy’s RAF father, compresses A Matter of Life and Death into a matter of minutes. Then it’s straight to the big Beano energy of summer camp, with Oliver Reed hosting a lovely legs contest and pushing kids in the pool. But Russell always provides a darker underbelly to his pictorial scenes. A piano playing punk really does want to drown Tommy when mum and dad are away (hi, Ray & Liz).

The most jarring moment occurs when Tommy is molested during the ‘Fiddling About’ number. The punchline to the scene? His pedophile uncle, played by Keith Moon in fingerless gloves, sitting in bed reading a copy of the Gay Times. It’s alienating to say the least, particularly if the japes and jokes of the film thus far have dragged you along. Eric Clapton, too, whose soul-man preacher turn has dated equally badly, makes you wonder how cultural tastes have changed over the last 40 years. These details make Tommy an essential time capsule of Britain in the ’70s; a nation as morally paranoid and panicked then as it is now.

Still, there are plenty of intensely pleasurable sequences in the film. Tina Turner’s lips gyrating uncontrollably as she lures Tommy towards his first sexual encounter; he enters an iron maiden of heroin needles which spins like a pinball top, the camera zooming in and out of Tuner’s face as she dances around. Even more surreal is the scene where a rocker, about to shoot a hippy in the face is interrupted by Tommy hang-gliding in out of nowhere.

In a film overstuffed with cameos (we haven’t even mentioned Jack Nicholson’s eyebrow-raising appearance) which assaults the viewer with sticky images, Ann-Margaret delivers an iconic performance, grounding proceedings with sheer expressive emotion. In one scene, she laments Tommy’s absence by Go-Go dancing while champagne, then baked beans, then chocolate, burst out of the television, which she promptly writhes in. Nothing in the history of cinema should have worked less than this. And yet…

The rock opera continues to flourish today through the ‘visual album’. ‘Lemonade’, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Dirty Computer’ are all Tommy descendants which assert the dominance of music and the popstar as quasi-religious symbol. But as the monoculture dissolves, these films no longer receive wide theatrical releases. As bloated and inconsistent as Tommy is, it represents a mode of pop cultural consumption that is as bygone as pinball and seaside amusements. It’s a glorious monument to a time past.

Published 20 Nov 2019

Tags: Ann-Margaret Ken Russell Roger Daltrey The Who

Anticipation.

The Who are just the CSI guys at this point.

Enjoyment.

Each scene is a new adventure! One of Ken Russell’s highest aesthetic achievements.

In Retrospect.

Can’t get it out of my head, for better and worse.

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