It’s clear that Ken Russell hates organized religion. From his deft deconstruction of the Church in The Devils to his blasphemous repurposing of sacred iconography throughout his career, he has been a one man directorial critic of the clergy ever since he first put pretense to celluloid. It’s also obvious that Russell adores music. Most of his oeuvre has been in the service of pushing classical composers to the fore, albeit in his own unique, revisionist manner. So it’s no surprise then that at the height of his fame as Britain’s artist enfant terrible, he would use his extraordinary visual acumen to bring The Who’s seminal Tommy to life. Not only did the noise being made by Pete Townshend and the boys fit directly into his ‘sound as inspiration’ designs, but the premise of the performance piece easily endeared itself to his “we’re not going to take it” taunts on faith as fraud.
For those unfamiliar with the celebrated ‘60s rock opera, Tommy centers on a little boy who, thanks to a horrific childhood trauma (changed in the movie from the original LP origins), is suddenly struck death, dumb, and blind. His mother (here played brilliantly by Ann-Margaret) and his “Uncle” Frank (another knockout from Russell fave Oliver Reed) are angered by his sudden affliction and do everything in their power to find an answer. This includes seeking out the help of huckster healers (Eric Clapton and Arthur Brown), drug pushers (Tina Turner as ‘The Acid Queen’), family (Paul Nicholas’ Cousin Kevin, Keith Moon’s pedophilic Uncle Ernie), and a renowned, if suspect doctor (Jack Nicholson). When his propensity for pinball is discovered, Tommy (a mesmerizing Roger Daltrey) takes on the champ (Elton John) and soon becomes world famous and wealthy. Indeed, with his growing celebrity comes a cult willing to do anything the newly fashioned messiah says - up to a point.