Dir: Ken Russell, 1975
This is the film that got me into The Who. It’s a brilliant rock opera about Tommy Walker, a young boy who is rendered deaf, dumb and blind by seeing his father (Robert Powell) murdered by his mum’s lover, Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed).
His mother, Nora Walker, (Ann-Margaret) tries in vain and all manner of remedies to try and break him from his state but none of them work. She is overwhelmed by guilt and blames herself for causing Tommy’s disabilities.
The only interaction Tommy has got is with a mirror of which he can see and hear himself.
Through playing pinball he acquires a cult following.
Eventually, Tommy (Roger Daltrey) awakens from his mental and physical prison and is elevated to the status of a messiah by the young and disenchanted followers but his mother and step father use his infamy for their own financial gain.
Angered by Tommy’s lack of spiritual insight and failure to deliver enchantment to the masses his congregation rebel against his teachings and flee from the cult leaving Tommy alone to begin his rebirth from the very place where he was conceived.
There is no talking in the film. The whole narrative and dialogue is presented through song but it’s fabulous. The original 1969 album was a masterpiece but was very sixties orientated. Here, the music is harsh and rocky with most of the songs driven by overdrive. It comes across as more a selection of music videos set to a narrative.
Like the original album there is only a couple of clunkers that could easily have been taken out, Sally Simpson especially. The scene depicts a young girl (Russell’s daughter) who becomes disfigured after sneaking out to see Tommy in concert against her father’s wishes who is a vicar (Ben Aris).
The scene grinds the film to a halt and is, for me, cringe worthy. Sally goes on to marry a rock star, also played by a child, who is dressed like Frankenstein. It doesn’t add anything to the film or the story and should have been removed at the album stage.
Aside from that misjudged scene everything else is A1. Tina Turner makes her acting debut in this as a drug dealing prostitute called the Acid Queen, hired in an attempt to bring Tommy out of his vegetative state by administering drugs.
Elton John is the pinball wizard, the most famous character from the opera singing the most famous song. Nobody could have played the role like Elton, standing on six foot high Doc Marten boots and using a piano keyboard to play the pinball machine. Accompanied by the remaining members of The Who, the tune is a pure blast. You can’t help but sing along. It’s one of the very few times that a cover version might be better than the original!
Eric Clapton plays a Marilyn Monroe worshipping preacher trying to restore Tommy’s senses through worship and prayer. Arthur Brown of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown fame makes a cameo as a wild preacher offering wine to the believers. Strangely enough, despite singing in the film he doesn’t appear on the soundtrack.
Rounding out the list of stars is none other than Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson. Appearing in the film is an odd choice for Nicholson as this is the last sort of movie you would find him in. He can’t sing. At all. And he IS on the soundtrack.
Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, here plays a dual role most memorably as Tommy’s perverted, child molesting Uncle Ernie. He also plays the drummer in the Pinball Wizard segment.
We’re left with the star of British stage and screen Paul Nicholas as Tommy’s bullying, sadistic cousin, Kevin.
As you can see it’s an eclectic roster of stars that works when really it shouldn’t. Ensemble casts very rarely work as the focus is put too much on the people rather than the film. But, not here. Here, Russell knows that the music is the star of the film and lets it shine through, ironically, overshadowing the stars.
In his first role Roger Daltrey is the adult Tommy and he IS Tommy. After being the character on stage for a number of years while touring he’s the perfect person to recreate the persona on celluloid.
Daltrey suffered for his art at the hands of director Ken Russell. Blasted with freezing cold water from a fire hose, dragged by his hair and forced to climb a mountain barefoot Daltrey takes it all in his stride and battles through all the better for it.
People commonly talk about Elton John’s or Tina Turner’s scenes as being the highlight of the show but, for me, it’s got to be “See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You”. With Frank an Nora dead and his holiday camp decimated, Tommy sings his forgiveness while making his way to the sight of his conception. A rising sun perfectly bringing Tommy’s spiritual journey to an end and a new life to start.
The film needed to be made as it also fleshes out the plot holes in Pete Townshend’s original. The ’69 LP doesn’t make it clear that Tommy witnessed a murder and it was the lover who was killed by the father which lessens the impact of Tommy’s psychological inefficiency.
Russell wrote the screenplay and sorted out the issues that plagued the record. The setting was switched from 1921 to 1951 and the lover became the perpetrator and the sire the victim. This is a major plot improvement as it stands to reason that the little boy would be more traumatised from his father’s death than the lover or, as he’s referred to, uncle Frank.
Ultimately, get the disc, turn up the volume and rock yourself stupid to what is the best rock band in the world The Who!