Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Tina Turner, Keith Moon, Paul Nicholas, Jack Nicholson
(Columbia Pictures; US DVD: 7 Sep 2010)
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.
Bursting with imagination and aided by the power in Townshend’s iconoclastic tunes, Tommy transcends the typical musical ideals to become a piece of pure pop art poetry. It represents Russell at his most mischievous and organic, relying less on the surreal symbolism that would haunt his legacy and more on the inherent storytelling skill in the music itself. Sure, we stumble upon a group that worships the booze and pills pomposity of Marilyn Monroe and the Pinball King wears Doc Martins the size of a small office building, but unlike his later flights of fancy (like the wholly bizarre and undeniably weird Listzomania), every creative decision here makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t a larger than life figure be literally the same, or why not turn one of the most famous female faces in the world into the epitome of false idolatry? In Tommy, it all works.
Even the more unhinged moments resonate in the way Russell intends. As part of her potent tour de force work for the director, Ann-Margret had to endure a three day deluge of baked beans, laundry detergent, and chocolate syrup, all to highlight the narrative’s need to depict our hero as the ultimate ‘commercial’ sell-out. Similarly, the shiny chrome ‘iron maiden’ utilized by Tina Turner during her “Acid Queen” workout turns the age old element of addiction on its pointed, torturous, multi-syringed head. At other instances, his pictures are flawless in their meaning (Cousin Kevin’s day of delinquency, the sound effects assuring Uncle Ernie’s late night intentions) and throughout, Russell returns to recognizable symbols -water, sunshine, reflections, and fire - to keep things solid and recognizable.
More importantly, he keeps Townshend’s twee ideas for being too dated or easily definable. As its core, Tommy is about overcoming psychological trauma via an inner journey to enlightenment. All the pitfalls along the way - the con job preachers, the quack medicos, the opportunistic charlatans, and one’s own personal arrogance - are given space and personification to work their warping magic. Russell’s reconfigures these elements into a sinister self-help horror show, a combination of Hammer menace and EST ridiculousness that ends up turning into an all out war between various recognizable UK factions (Teds, bikers) and honest intentions. Tommy himself is seen both as a victim and a victimizer, someone who buys into his myth without fully understanding its impact while hoping to do good. His last act epiphany, backed by the song “Listening to You/See Me, Feel Me”, is shocking in its natural awe and emotional honesty.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation of this material than what Russell rummages out of his fevered brain. Highly influential (you can’t watch Julie Taymor’s take on the Beatles, Across the Universe, without seeing everything this visionary accomplished nearly four decades before) and stoked with supreme directorial mastery, it’s an epiphany of perplexing pleasures. Even by today’s CG heavy standards, what he accomplishes with mid ‘70s technology is truly astonishing. During Tommy’s initial childhood travails, there’s an amazing moment where hundreds of post-production processed shots of the boy dance about maniacally. Similarly, the repurposing of some old WWII buoys turn our hero’s holiday camp into an oversized pinball strewn sanctuary. Today, a few trips through the motherboard would realize these aims. Russell did it practically, and a thousand times better.
In the end though, it’s all about the performances and the director’s willing cast deliver something definitive. Ann-Margaret has never been better, dropping all glamour pretense and Viva Las Vegas glitz to give Tommy’s mother the perfect combination of dour and dream. She is matched well by Reed who, in his greasy, beery bravado, turns Frank into a likeable, lethal leech. Daltrey, who looks like he was purposefully born to play the title savant savior, eases into his early work as a vacant canvas before exploding as the true proto-religious ‘superstar’. The Who’s enigmatic frontman really holds the film together, keeping things grounded whenever Russell wants to wander off the rails for a while. Considering the musical legacy left by the film itself - John in his mega-mass appeal moment, Clapton as a slow hand Hercules - it’s an impressive job.
While some see Tommy as a relic from a rock excess past, steeped in the often stupefying oddness of Ken Russell’s arrogance, the truth is far more friendly. As a vivid reflection of the Peace decade pontifications made by its chief musician, as a window into a world that would later be overdone and overexposed by a made-for-TV movie mentality, Tommy literally sings. It suggests more than it shows, even as its director redefined his terms with terrific examples of optical wonder. Sure, in the end it may seem like another slam at those who would take advantage of the sick and the needy. Yes, it can be argued as outrageous and incomprehensible like all rock and roll shows. But if one takes a moment and considers the man behind the lens, all logic falls freely into place. Tommy is indeed a testament to the mind of its re-maker. Both the source, and the showman involved, are genius.