Friday, April 4, 1975.TOMMY. Based on the rock opera by The Who. Music by Pete Townshend. Written and directed by Ken Russell. Running time: 111 minutes. Mature entertainment.
WHEN THE MOVIES first found their voice, they used it to sing. "All talking, all singing, all dancing," was the slogan that proclaimed the sound era. The musical was its most striking result.
Recently, and with considerable less fanfare, a new sound era has begun. A marriage has been made between rock drama and the movies, a union that became possible when a number of brilliantly clnematic directors found creative inspiration in contemporary music.
Norman Jewison did it with the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera in 1973's Jesus Christ Superstar. Brian de Palma followed with the Paul Williams-scored Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
Now there's Ken Russell's Tommy, a film that proves that almost every adjective that's ever been applied to the 47-year-old British director — a list that includes outrageous, eclectic, esoteric, ingenious and vulgar — is gloriously true.
Russell is an acquired taste. His films are multilevelled excursions into a non-conventional mind, one that is full of manic energy and, despite occasional lapses of taste, is unfailingly intelligent.
Tommy is the rock opera originally created by The Who. (Who? Damned if I know. Pop music is Jeani Read's department, and her view of Tommy is contained in a separate article.)
The character of Tommy (played by as a youngster by Barry Winch and as an adult by Roger Daltrey) is meant as a metaphor for the rock generation. Struck deaf, dumb and blind at age six, he remains in the darkness for 20 years, unable to see, hear or speak the evil around him.
When his senses are restored, he becomes, "a sensation," assuming the well-intentioned, but ultimately tragic role of mod messiah. Presumably its original authors took Tommy seriously.
Russell, bless him, does not. The director has restructured the story to suit his own cinematic vision, producing a film that is sure to delight iconoclasts and irreverent film fans of every age.
His opening, a nostalgia-soaked lovers' farewell in the midst of the London blitz, has Nora Walker (Ann-Margret) seeing her gallant bomber pilot husband (Robert Powell) off to the wars. Their son Tommy is born after he has gone down over Germany.
Six years later, Nora meets and marries Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), a holiday camp host. One night. a ghostly image of his father visits Tommy, and the child follows it to his mother's bedroom. There, he sees his step-father kill his real father, and his senses seize up,
Russell's Freudian implication, of course, is that the lad saw not a murder, but adult sex. Like Hamlet, Tommy loves his lost father, is ambivalent about his still young and hot-blooded mother, and hates his stepfather.
In a broader sense, Tommy represents his generation's revulsion at the way in which survivors often seem to profane the sacrifices made by the idealists. Traumatized, he attempts to shut out such a world.
Despite his retreat, reality manages to reach him through his one remaining sense: touch. He is variously introduced to drugs, to violence and to sexual feeling. After each experience, he is able to externalize that part of himself, to "see" it as a reflection in a mirror.
After the last experience, the three images merge, providing the still blind Tommy with a doppelganger, a vision that he follows to a junkyard piled high with the wreckage of an affluent society. There he discovers the pinball machine upon which he perfects his "touch."
The situation and the characters — the Acid Queen (Tina Turner) offers Tommy drugs; Cousin Kevin (Paul Nichols) does violence to him; Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) "fiddles about" — were all suggested by the existing music. Their visual equivalents, though, are pure Russell.
One of his most unforgettable creations is Turner's Acid Queen. At the crucial moment, she turns into a stainless steel Virgin of Nuremberg. A modern variation on the medieval torture device, her insides bristle not with spikes but with hypodermic needles.
Of course there's more, far more than there is room for in a single review. There's Russell's habit of "quoting" from other films, for example.
There are scenes in Tommy that vividly recall, among others, 1972's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Marat/Sade (1967), The Seven Year Itch (1955), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and, inevitably, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Indeed, Russell's "quotations" are worth a book all on their own.
Here they're just a part of the director's daring exploration of the senses, sensation and sensationalism. His Tommy is an explosion of sight and sound, a visual and intellectual firestorm that defies encapsulation or easy analysis.
From the beginning, defiance has been an important part of rock muslc. Another kind of defiance has made Ken Russell an intensely interesting filmmaker. In Tommy, this defiance becomes a revolution, describing an exciting new approach to the idea of the movies.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: It was about 11 o'clock on a Saturday night when Ken Russell called. He was concerned about the volume of the sound at Vancouver's Varsity Theatre. My wife answered the phone. "He wants to talk to you," she said. "He says he's Ken Russell."
An odd hour for a prank call, I thought. I really did not want to get into a late conversation about movies with some random nut. But, what if it really was the Tommy director calling? "Ask him who played Cosima Wagner in Mahler," I said, believing that only the director would recall the name of a supporting player in year-old movie.
"He says it was Antonia Ellis," was the instant answer. I took the call. The voice claiming to be Russell explained that he'd been in town briefly, and stopped by the theatre to see how his picture looked on a local screen. They weren't playing it loud enough, and no one at the theatre had the authority to increase the volume, he said. It was late, he was on his way out of town, he'd looked up my name in the phone book. Would I pass his message along to the theatre chain's district office on Monday morning?
I solemnly promised that I would, and then we chatted amiably about music, mysticism and movie-industry politics until his plane was called, and he disappeared into the night.
Like John Baxter, I'd been won over by the "appalling talent" Russell had shown in the films that had followed Women in Love, including his Tchaikovsky biography The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils and The Boy Friend (both 1971), Savage Messiah (1972) and Mahler (1974). After Tommy, his campaign to shock people into awareness continued with the biographies Lisztomania (1975) and Valentino (1977). The science-fictional Altered States (1980) was followed by a series of social-sexual studies that included Crimes of Passion (1984), Gothic (1986), Salome's Last Dance (1988), The Lair of the White Worm (1988), The Rainbow (1989) and Whore (1991). Like his late-night phone call, his films never failed to surprise, while always being memorable. Ken Russell died in 2011, aged 84.