Dir: Ken Russell, 1975
Nobody could have directed a film version of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, apart from Ken Russell.
His flamboyance and extravagances, were a perfect match for the pop art theme and surrealism that encompassed the 1969 double album.
Loud and bombastic, Russell’s film shines with its oblique narrative and egregious visuals, cementing its status as one of the best musicals of all time.
In 1951, little Tommy Walker, is struck deaf, dumb and blind after seeing his mother’s (Ann-Margaret) new lover, Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), murder the boy’s father (Robert Powell), believed to have been killed during the war.
After years of treatments, the now adult Tommy (Roger Daltrey) is no closer to regaining his faculties. However, a chance encounter with a pinball machine, reveals a talent for the game and Tommy becomes a messianic figure, bringing peace and love to all who follow him.
The original 1969 album, had a very sixties sound; light harmonies, acoustic guitars, dreamlike songs and, at times, a trippy feel. By the time the film came along, glam rock held a level of dominance in the music charts and rock, in general, had changed to a heavier sound with distortion and overdrive.
In this respect, the movie is superior to the album as it is also proof of Townshend’s maturing. The music is strong and vibrant, but relies too heavily on Townshend’s fixation with a synthesizer; a tool he used to great effect on the 1971 album Who’s Next, only two years after the original Tommy and four years before this.
However, the ’69 album is the better work as it fits the story and the narrative much more closely, providing a more rewarding experience.
From a story point of view, the album has several plot holes and is, often, incoherent. It doesn’t mention WHAT it was Tommy actually saw (“you didn’t see it! You didn’t hear it!”) to make him become deaf, dumb and blind. A couple of instrumentals (Sparks and Underture) don’t push the story along. One minute he’s getting molested by his Uncle Ernie (Fiddle About), the next, he’s winning at pinball. Where did the pinball machine come from? How did he acquire such a cult following? These questions and the slightly non-linear narrative, have always caused a certain level of frustration. Thankfully, Russell was aware of this and attempts to correct the issues.
Updating the story to 1951 from the album’s 1921 timeline, Russell can now give us a contemporary film, helping to propel the story headfirst into it’s 1970’s setting. A wise move on the director’s part, as everything is more accessible and the visuals fit the heavy rock sound.
In his first starring role, lead singer of The Who, Roger Daltrey, plays a superb adult Tommy. For the preceding six years, Daltrey was Tommy’s voice on stage and absorbed the persona. In effect, he WAS Tommy. Deftly, the legendary frontman creates a humane and believable character that nobody else could ever accomplish.
Notoriously extravagant in his direction, the Women In Love and The Devil’s director puts his flamboyance and over zealous style to perfect use. He simply fits the film to the music. Tommy screams Ken Russell. Very few auteurs (if any) could have made it work.
Produced by infamous music producer Robert Stigwood, Russell is able to rope in several superstars. Despite Elton John’s turn as the Pinball Wizard, being the most celebrated, it’s actually Tina Turner as The Acid Queen that steals the show from under the noses of her cameo co-stars. With her amazingly powerful voice and an actual talent for acting, Turner rocks the film and makes the song (The Acid Queen) all her own.
Ironically, the inclusion of top musicians bring the film down, rather than elevate it. Guest star Eric Clapton can’t act, and zombie-walks his through the scene. Lacking any enthusiasm for his role, Clapton shows a distinct expression of disinterest. Although, to be fair, he did only do it as a favour to Pete Townshend for helping him kick his heroin habit. Elton John does a terrific performance of Pinball Wizard while stood on six foot high Doc Marten boots but it detracts from the story and enforces the feel of a bunch of music videos just strung together.
Not noted for his singing, Oscar winner Jack Nicholson makes a brief appearance as a doctor attempting to cure Tommy. There is no doubt that he’s a highly gifted and brilliant actor, but a singer he is not. Flat and tone deaf, Nicholson can’t hold a note and gives Oliver Reed a run for his money in the “Worst Singing Voice” category!
To help flesh out the story, Townshend added several new songs. Some of them, do the film justice. Others, seem misplaced. Champagne doesn’t really have any place in the film. It’s there to show Nora’s guilt and shame over her son’s condition, but doesn’t push anything along. Russell uses it as an excuse to get Ann-Margaret covered in baked beans and chocolate. And neither the director or the composer, took advantage of the opportunity to get rid of that awful Sally Simpson segment. The entire movie, grinds to a halt and adds nothing to the film or story.
The screenplay works the order of songs around, allowing the narrative to flow much more smoothly than the album does. We now have a lucid story, rather than a disjointed one and this works much better.
This has all the hallmarks of Ken Russell’s idiosyncratic style of directing. Rapid zooms, bizarre visuals and frenetic editing. It suits Tommy‘s ideas and themes and compliments them, accordingly.
The debate over which is the better medium of Tommy will continue to rage, as it’s all swings and roundabouts. Both entities have pros and cons, that outdo and juxtapose each other. It’s best to treat them as two differing visions and not compare them.
But, for all its faults, the film is a brilliantly wonderful piece of filmmaking, with a soundtrack that is amazing and catchy. See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You is out of this world.