Based upon the rock opera by The Who
Musical Director Pete Townshend
Written For The Screen and Directed by Ken Russell
"Tommy" has been a part of my life even before I heard one note of the original 1969 album by The Who, before I ever saw the film which I am about to grandly commemorate or even before I ever knew what it was.
Before I plunge ahead, I must inform you that I have hesitated many, many times from writing about this film for you. This is simply because I have already written about it once before and typically for me, when it's written, it's written and there's no looking back. To explain, over 10 years ago, I wrote a mostly autobiographical (and yes, unpublished) short story in which the experience of the film version of "Tommy" provided the core and catalyst for a brisk, comical piece set during the college years and is partially about how art is never finite. How as we grow, change and build our experiences, the art we encounter along the way never remains the same as it was when we first met. Simply stated: The art changes with us.
In the story, my fictional alter-ego passionately recounts his life long love and obsession with "Tommy" and how that love is challenged on one bizarre evening at a local movie theater when his beloved film is being presented, as he consistently exclaims, "on the BIG SCREEN with the BIG SOUND." He is soon accosted by another "Tommy" enthusiast in the adjoining theater seat, with whom he strikes up a friendship and who also eventually presents to him a surprising and unwanted suggestion thus altering his cinematic state of bliss. It was a fun story to write, so much so, I uncharacteristically entered it into a creative writing contest (I lost). Only a couple of people have actually read it, entirely due to my fear of something so personal and something I have loved so much being rejected and therefore, being proven that I just may not have any talent with writing at all.
For the purposes of this feature, this latest edition of Savage Cinema's Favorite Movies, I will open the vault, as it were, and give you a glimpse into the story as it pertains to this film which I have seen countless times over the last 30 years. So without further adieu, and jointly inspired by my recent viewing of Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" and my current reading of Pete Townshend's recently released and excellent memoir, Who I Am, I celebrate Director Ken Russell's phantasmagorical rock opera musical "Tommy," a cinematic experience that re-defines what it means to be original and so voluminous that the word "extravaganza" is too small to describe it. Trust me, dear readers, you ain't seen NOTHIN' like it!!
I first saw "Tommy" when I was 14 years old in 1983. But the seeds of that life altering cinematic meeting were planted five years earlier when I was obsessed and so deeply in love with Director Michael Schultz's universally maligned to the point of the film still being referred to as one of the worst movies ever made, the Beatles' inspired rock musical "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978) starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Aside from that film's box office failure and massive critical bashing, I am convinced to this day that I am the only person on the face of the Earth who has ever liked, let alone loved that movie...and believe me, dear readers, I LOVED that movie...and in many ways I still love that movie, its many flaws and all. (As a side note: My own Father, on the other hand and in line with the rest of the planet, couldn't even take it as he spent a good half of the movie waiting in the theater lobby for it to be over. Yet he never had the heart to tell me how much he hated it. God bless that man forever!)
Anyhow, the "Sgt. Pepper" movie led me to "Tommy" in a most auspicious fashion sometime during the fall of 1978 just before I exited my school bus to head into my 4th grade homeroom. Returning to the story I wrote, my fictional alter ego recounted this peculiar yet seismic moment in the following passage:
Louise, the husky-voiced, shaggy haired and deceptively sultry bus driver took hold of my jacket, pulled me close to her ear and whispered to me, "If you dug 'Sgt. Pepper' that much, you're gonna LOVE 'Tommy'." Those words lingered in the air for a second. I could almost see them travel from her mouth to my ear as I took in this cigarette breath laced secret. "Tommy"? I had no idea what she was talking about but the seed had been planted.
Flash forward to the winter of 1983, when my family purchased our very first VCR. My Father entered the house on a Friday evening with three rented movies in tow, one of which, inexplicably, was "Tommy," especially as I had NEVER mentioned anything regarding that film to him even once. I began to watch the film for the first time very late that night. At the beginning, I was curious, skeptical and even a tad apprehensive at what I was about to see. Throughout my viewing of the film, I was blasted with an ocean of sound and vision unlike anything I had ever seen in my life and I just barely hung on. By the film's conclusion, and as promised by the film's advertising tag line, my senses would never be the same ever again.
Beginning near the end of World War II in 1945 Britain, "Tommy" stars Ann-Margaret as Nora Walker, a woman rapturously in love with her husband Captain Walker (Robert Powell), a pilot called to military duty, leaving a pregnant Nora behind. Captain Walker's plane is soon shot down and as Pete Townshend's lyrics proclaim, Walker is "believed to be missing with a number of men. Don't expect to see him again." On the day the war ends, Nora gives birth to a son she names Tommy and believing Captain Walker has perished, she bravely sets forward with raising her son alone.
Five years later, while on a vacation to an English seaside tourist camp, a lonely Nora is charmed and seduced by holiday camp employee Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed). The two fall in love, young Tommy (Barry Winch) grows enchanted with his gregarious "Uncle" Frank and a new life together as a family seems idyllic. But not for long...
On one fateful night, a disfigured Captain Walker returns! Shocked to find Nora in bed with Frank, a scuffle ensues and concludes with Captain Walker's murder by Frank, which occurs in full view of young Tommy. "What about the boy????? He saw it all!!!!!!!!" shrieks Nora. And the pivotal moment in Tommy's life arrives when Nora and Frank furiously command of him, "You didn't see it!! You didn't hear it!! You won't say nothing to no one ever in your life!!" Traumatized, Tommy then retreats into an aural/visual/spoken silence, rendering him unable to communicate or respond with anyone and also serving as a constant, agonizing reminder of Nora and Frank's crime.
Nearly ten to fifteen years pass and Tommy (now played by The Who's Roger Daltrey) remains "deaf, dumb and blind." An anguished Nora and increasingly irritated Frank feverishly try to have Tommy cured through various bizarre attempts, including a Marilyn Monroe cult worshiping Preacher (Eric Clapton), a slick and sleazy medical Specialist (Jack Nicholson) and the nearly horrific dealings of The Acid Queen (ferociously played by Tina Turner), an LSD pushing prostitute. Tragically, all of these attempts are to no avail. Life at home for Tommy is even worse as he is subjected to one tortuous event after another as he is brutalized by his sadistic Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) and molested by a pedophile, his Uncle Ernie (played for sickening comic effect by The Who's masterful drummer, the late Keith Moon). Yet, deep within the recesses of Tommy's mind and spirit, he is one with the sensations and vibrations of existence, flowing and flying through adventures with images of his deceased Father as spiritual guide and urging inner pleas to anyone and everyone to "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me." Soon, Nora and Frank grow troubled by Tommy's endless fascination with mirrors. To them, Tommy is unable to see his own reflection. But to Tommy, his spiritual transcendence is just beginning...and is soon found through the game of pinball.
Despite his physical afflictions, Tommy soon becomes "the master of the game" after defeating The Pinball Wizard (Elton John) and as a result, he becomes rich, famous and a spiritual hero to a new generation. The eventual return of all of Tommy's senses propels him into becoming a modern day messiah, as well as a cause for religious exploitation by Frank. The ensuing clash between Tommy's idealism and the growing fury of a public looking for guidance and transcendence but met with soulless consumerism brings Tommy to an epic new phase in his on-going evolution.
In the weekend of my first meeting with "Tommy," I watched the film for a total of four times. At that time, I wasn't even sure if I had even liked the movie. But, I felt enormously compelled to ride this enormous cinematic wave all over again. And then, as my fictional alter-ego further explains:
I couldn't get it out of my head! "Tommy" became a part of my consciousness and sub-consciousness, much like a dream that you're unable to shake. This thing lived in me and I just had to get to the bottom of this...So, I rented it again. And again. And again. I would watch it between two and four times during each rental period, going deeper inside and emerging slightly more enthralled than the previous viewing. Before I knew it, I was so in love with this movie that discovering some set-in-stone meaning didn't matter. I knew what it meant to me. It was almost a spiritual conversion, like if you went to church all of your life, every Sunday and heard the same message over and over and finally, it sank it and you just...got it! That's what it was like when "Tommy" showed its clarity to me. It just made sense and there was no way to explain it all. It simply...WAS!
Ken Russell's "Tommy" is indeed an opera in every sense of the term and genre. The nearly two hour film contains not even one stitch of spoken dialogue and it is a film that is unapologetically grand in scope, conceptual and emotional tonality as well as containing more than its share of high drama. As a rock opera, especially during the middle of the 1970's, the film is a tribute to excess, flash, garishness, outrageousness, decadence and yes, the whole thing can feel a little silly while also defiantly wearing its heart on its sleeve, daring you to challenge it. In the cinematic world of rock musicals, "Tommy" was, is, and shall always and unquestionably be one of the very BEST the genre has to offer.
"Tommy" is truly one of those rare "one-of-a-kind" films that arrives every once in a while, announcing itself proudly and confidently as an experience you will receive absolutely, positively, undeniably NOWHERE else but with it! It is a film with no middle-ground whatsoever. You will either go with its flow or you won't. You will love it or you will hate it. I think that a recent example of a film in this unique category would be something like Director Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim VS. The World" (2010), a film that sits in a movie universe so completely of its own making. Usually films of this sort are relegated to cult status or they are so out of the box that audiences don't respond to it at all. "Tommy" defied those odds by not only becoming a box office smash in 1975, but also for receiving high recognition from the Hollywood industry. Pete Townshend was nominated for an Academy Award for his original score and vast re-working of his original material for the film. Ann-Margaret was also nominated in the Oscar category of Best Actress and she received the Best Actress award at the 1975 Golden Globes. And most deservedly so.
As Nora Walker, Ann-Margaret takes what could have been an impossible role to play due to its far reaching arc and just crushes it! Her performance is flat out phenomenal and fearless as she takes Nora from a sense of normalcy and familiarity to the furthest reaches of agony, sorrow and the depths of madness and then spiraling upwards to supreme elation and a subsequent swan dive into tragedy. This is a performance where you will witness an actress grabbing a role with both hands so tightly that you can nearly witness the blood draining from her knuckles. The go-for-broke showstopper for her is undoubtedly during the song "Champagne," as a newly wealthy Nora, blasted into an alcoholic haze, watches Tommy defeat The Pinball Wizard on television as she sits in a pristine and endlessly white bedroom. She sings about the riches she is now able to lavish in due to Tommy's growing celebrity but the worthlessness of it all as her son cannot see, hear or speak. Her drunken stupor and increasing rage leads her to destroy her television after which she falls into a wild hallucinatory sequence where items from commercials (soap bubbles, baked beans, chocolate) flow from the broken screen submerging her inside to writhe around in. Yes, "Tommy" is that kind of movie and Ann-Margaret is an absolute POWERHOUSE!
As Frank Hobbs, Oliver Reed is her equal. What he may lack in...ahem... tunefulness, he more than makes up for it with his own go-for-broke comic energy which is nearly "Falstaff-ian." He elicits terrific range through his sense of romance, sinister malevolence, and consumer driven megalomania. Frank begins as a comic romantic yet quickly descends into murderous fury. While he seems to be an unsympathetic con-man for much of the film, he does allow hints of regret to surface when confronted with the damage he has done to Tommy, especially when it arrives in the form of the lascivious Uncle Ernie or the terrifying Acid Queen. Oliver Reed may not seem to be an obvious choice for a movie such as this one, especially being a rock musical, but when you see it, you will realize that he was the perfect and only choice.
Roger Daltrey is a true revelation. To witness one of the greatest rock music golden gods in a fully realized acting performance was a sight to behold as he truly becomes Tommy instead of playing Tommy. Certainly, quite a bit of this accomplishment must be due to the immense work he had already poured into this character as he originated it on vinyl and perfected it in The Who's concert performances. Yet, with this film, Daltrey reaches an entirely new level as he gives himself over to such vulnerability and is supremely convincing as one who has lost all of his senses yet projects a vast interior life. Once Tommy regains his senses and becomes a spiritual leader, Daltrey's full command of the role and therefore, the screen itself is massive. And somehow, someway, he finds new layers and emphasis vocally, taking the character of Tommy to stratospheric heights. When he reaches the film's finale of "Listening To You," the feeling is awesome and majestic.
In Ken Russell's hands, "Tommy" is a film that grabs you from the very first shot and refuses to let go. In one striking image after another after another, it is a film that continuously tops itself while always remaining consistent with itself. It threatens to spiral completely out of control time and again yet Russell's directorial hand magically remains rock steady while his imagination flies to another galaxy. Not an easy feat even within Russell's own ouvre which often found his films, which include "Lisztomania" (1975) and "Altered States" (1981), blasting apart under the sheer weight of his madhouse creativity.
The marriage of Ken Russell with The Who's classic album is one of amazing symbiotic brilliance. On the album, the story is straightforward while also impressionistic as long instrumental passages do nothing to advance the actual plot but do everything to emulate Tommy's inner world, therefore leaving so much to interpretation. While Russell made some changes to Townshend's original storyline (from changing the time period from World War I to World War II and most notably, having Tommy's Mother and lover murder his Father instead of the album where Tommy's parents murder the lover), he is faithful, almost reverential to the album as he utilized every song for the film plus added a few more. Again, Townshend's story leaves much to interpretation and that is where Ken Russell is able to do what he does best, create a dazzling display of images designed to entrance, surprise and blow your head apart. The "Eyesight To The Blind" sequence featuring Eric Clapton builds with menacing intensity and religious satire while Tina Turner's "The Acid Queen" section grows more hypnotically harrowing with each passing image merged with the pounding music. And for a film where every moment is designed to be a GREAT moment, it would be hard pressed to scale eve higher than "The Pinball Wizard" sequence, which is so brilliantly composed, filmed and edited that Russell makes you feel as if you are inside that pinball machine as blinding lights and sound assault and caress you. It is outstandingly kinetic!
And for all of the jaw dropping entertainment, "Tommy," for me, has grown over the years with a certain seriousness in regards to issues of spiritual enlightenment and religious hypocrisy. Additionally, I have been extremely moved by the film's disturbing images and themes pertaining to child abuse ("Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About") and the even more provocative suggestions concerning autism. As I encounter more and more children with all manner of special needs in my life as a teacher, I often think to myself that if I were able to purchase a ticker for a ride inside of a particular child's mind, what would the experience be like. How is the world perceived through their unique perspective and emotional landscapes? And what of the children who are truly unable to communicate to others in the so-called "normal" ways? The children I have known and worked with over the last 14 years of my teaching life have provided me with an increased awareness and insight to the vast reaches of the mind and language that it means supremely more to me now when I witness the characters of Nora and Frank continuously ask of their non-communicative child, "Tommy, can you hear me?" Or when Nora sings late in the film, "I often wonder what it is he's feeling. has he ever heard a word I've said. Look at him now, in the mirror dreaming. What is happening in his head?" In its own hyperactive way, "Tommy" works magnificently to shed light, understanding and solidarity with those who may be unable to speak for themselves in traditional ways but perhaps are speaking for themselves, if only we will take the time to try to hear them and feel them.
Ken Russell's "Tommy" is a powerful experience that, for my sensibilities, has been unmatched as it is in a class by itself. It is a testament to Pete Townshend's original musical vision and The Who's masterful musical reach for the cosmos and beyond. It is a film that continues to sweep me away via its sheer force and boundless creativity. No, it is not for everybody but not every film needs to be for everybody. But, it is one that I hope that I have convinced you to try for the first time or revisit if you have not seen it in some time.
"Tommy" delivers the spectacular and will forever hold a firm place in my cinematic heart as one of my most favorite movies.
And remember...PLAY LOUD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!