The Who’s rock opera Tommy still rocks. In 1969, The Who released the original concept album, written primarily by band member Pete Townshend. As a recent arrest for accessing child pornography on the internet and the ensuing media events have revealed, the rock opera was apparently written by Townshend to deal with the childhood sexual abuse he himself suffered. That might be the personal background to the rock opera’s tale of a boy reduced to a pseudo-catatonic state after witnessing the death of his father.
With the movie adaptation of Tommy, director Ken Russell expanded Townshend’s personal expression to encompass the shared cultural trauma of the postmodern age. Townshend’s personal history is just one chord resonating within Russell’s cacophony.
Originally released in 1975, the DVD release of Tommy brings back its hopeful tale of survival for an ever-changing culture. A pretty obvious metaphor for consumer culture’s barrage of advertising and fads, Tommy tells the story of the deaf, dumb, and blind boy, Tommy (The Who’s front man Roger Daltrey) who becomes a “Pinball Wizard” messiah. While Tommy’s malady symbolizes the plight of the consumer audience, his commodification as the Pinball Wizard messiah defines and limits Tommy as a human being (much as consumerism reduces people merely to the status of consumers).
Unlike Tommy, the audience of Tommy is made to feel anything but deaf, blind, and dumb. The movie, directed by visionary kitsch artist Russell, excites the senses. The music, written by Pete Townshend, always piques the ears with its wit and its arena rock pomp. Russell’s images are even more intoxicating and extravagant. Now available on Superbit DVD, Tommy even invites the occasional sing-along. The sonic and visual excesses of Tommy make for a liberating experience.
Exemplifying his unrestrained artistic japes, Russell speeds through the cultural developments from World War II to Vietnam (and beyond), and in the process makes a hash of historical realism. Note, for example, how Ann- Margret’s wardrobe changes with the styles, but she never appears to age as Tommy’s mother. Despite the seeming chaos, Russell’s approach to history is actually quite sophisticated.
Russell conceives the pre-World War II era as some kind of Eden. There are no lyrics, just musical accompaniment in this section of the film: an overture. The movie’s “Let there be light” first image silhouettes Tommy’s father, Group-Captain Walker (Robert Powell), against the setting sun—a gorgeously conspicuous artificial effect. The shot establishes Tommy’s father as an iconographic figure. Russell positions his perspective on the era explicitly from a postmodern point of view. The spectator responds not to the symbolism that establishes a father figure, but, rather, the overt artificiality of the symbol.
Such fervor for the superficiality of symbols resonates in every shot of Tommy. To visualize an air raid in England, Russell creates this striking dollhouse image: Powell and Margaret on the second floor of a house with one side collapsed. In a searing montage, Russell juxtaposes the breaking of a framed photograph of Walker with Walker’s plane window, cracked with flames burning outside of it. It suggests Walker’s death—a presumption later subverted. Therefore, it also represents the death of signification—the end of pop culture innocence; paradise lost.
The resulting age of skepticism is dramatized by the destruction of the iconographic father. In his primal scene, the young Tommy (Barry Winch) witnesses his stepfather, Frank Hobbs (Russell regular Oliver Reed), murder his biological father. The sequence conflates Tommy’s personal revelation with the larger cultural issue of the loss of meaning: the failure of the “father” equals the lies of history. Consequently, Reed and Margaret sing to the boy: “You didn’t hear it! / You never seen it! / You’ll never tell a soul!” That is how Tommy becomes deaf, blind, and dumb, succumbing to repressive forces. The film Tommy responds by helping the audience get through its own cultural trauma.
By turning skepticism into fun, Tommy exhibits the amazing perseverance of those living in the postmodern age. Zipping through pop eras, Russell takes the commodities of the times and re-contextualizes them willy-nilly. In an attempt to cure Tommy, his mother brings him to a church that worships the healing powers of a Marilyn Monroe statue. The idol is molded in Marilyn’s eternal Seven Year Itch blowing-skirt pose, until Tommy knocks the statue over and it breaks into pieces. The anarchic spirit of Tommy constantly knocks down cultural totems.
When Russell really cranks up the hysteria, he’s actually raising his postmodern agenda to an ecstatic jamboree. Such moments are the highlights of Tommy, and there’s none more justly famous than Ann-Margret rolling around in the Champagne suds, baked beans, and chocolate syrup gushing from her television set. It’s a really wild tangent, set up by Russell’s parodies of commercials for canned beans and boxed chocolates. Once products for sale, the beans and chocolate get put to better use here as lubrication for Ann-Margret’s mad slip-and-slide dance.
Russell recognizes examples of such pop excess when the band members destroy their instruments and speakers at the end of the Elton John number, “Pinball Wizard.” During the song Russell establishes playing pinball as Tommy’s method of coping with the world. Tommy uses a pop-cult product for personal use, for his own method of engagement with the world. Russell—himself a “pinball wizard” of pop excess—does the same with Tommy.
Ahead of his time, Russell reveals that even such a liberating relation to pop can itself become commodified. Tommy—as a self-promoting messiah—hopes to sell the freedom he discovered to his fans. In a moneymaking scheme instigated by Tommy’s parents, Tommy instructs his cultish followers to play pinball with eyes blindfolded, ears muffed, and mouths corked. Tommy’s liberation becomes a means of mass exploitation.
That is why Russell’s cinema encourages spectator perception and response. Against their exploitation, the members of the cult revolt, which is inventively staged by Russell as a montage of the revolutionaries smashing pinball machine faceplates. The revolt sets Tommy free. The final shot silhouettes, Daltrey, Tommy the son, against another faux sun. The sun rises and Daltrey moves into the space to pose appropriately—re-contextualizing the earlier sign of his father. Here, pop spectacle offers the opportunity to engage with the complexity and resonance of signs, and the final shot captures the regenerative cycle of pop resistance.