Sunday, January 31, 2010

TOMMY 1975

In 1975, a full six years before the existence of MTV and two years before Saturday Night Fever propelled disco to the forefront of pop culture, director Ken Russell (who had previously trained his by-then trademark grandiloquent eye almost exclusively on the lives of classical composers), created what was essentially a 2-hour music video. Part Scopitone cheese-fest, surrealist fever-dream, theater of the absurd, and post-60s drug-addled freak-out; Ken Russell’s 100% assault on the senses was the self-proclaimed rock-opera, Tommy.
Ann-Margret as Nora Walker
Oliver Reed as Frank Hobbs
Roger Daltrey as Tommy Walker
Not since that atheist genius of stylish nihilism, Roman Polanski, was assigned to the darkly cynical Rosemary's Baby has there been a more perfect match of director and subject. Ken Russell's theatrically baroque, visual-heavy style was ideally suited to a tale of such broad-strokes bombast as Tommy. Marketed as an experience as much as a movie, Tommy boasted rock-concert-decibel-level sound (the five-speaker Quintaphonic sound system that rattled movie theater rafters every bit as much as Earthquake's Sensurround); a story told entirely in song and music; and a mind-blowing, only-in-the-70s cast of pop/rock musicians and movie stars. But best of all, Tommy had at its helm a director who was a master of just the sort of bizarre, over-the-top weirdness rock music demanded. Tommy was poised as a 70s happening, and it didn't disappoint in the least.
Personally, I was impressed as hell by the film's phenomenal and offbeat casting choices.
Jack Nicholson as The Doctor
Tina Turner as The Acid Queen
Elton John as The Pinball Wizard

Significantly retooled from the 1969 double-album by The Who, Tommy is a quasi-spiritual parable about a boy (Barry Winch) rendered hysterically deaf, dumb, and blind after witnessing the murder of his father (Robert Powell) at the hands of his mother's lover (Oliver Reed).
Witness to the Murder
Seriously, who wouldn't be rendered deaf, dumb, and blind by this?
While shared guilt tears at the fibers of the marriage of Nora (Ann-Margret) and Frank (Reed) - Nora in particular grapples with remorse over what she has done - the now grown Tommy (Daltrey) retreats further and further into himself, inhabiting a vivid inner world which serves to shield him from the trauma of well-intentioned cure attempts and instances of parental neglect and familial abuse. As a result of his experiences, Tommy develops a near-supernatural talent for pinball and is hailed as a pop culture prodigy. 
For Nora, instant wealth and fame serve to superficially cushion the pain of the responsibility she feels for Tommy's afflictions, but when her actions bring about his an “accidental” fall through a plate-glass mirror, the miraculous restoration of his senses changes the course of her life. Tommy instantly becomes a worldwide spiritual messiah, but finds the world of redemption by way of material acquisition to be just another form of spiritual prison.
For a treatise on fame addiction, pop-spirituality, drugs, child abuse and family dysfunction, five seasons of “Oprah” couldn’t accomplish what Ken Russell does in two hours. Certainly not as entertainingly, to be sure. Russell rolls out his entire arsenal of visual tricks and along the way creates some of the most daring images ever captured on film.
Family Values

Tommy is chock full of sphere and globe motifs, religious iconography, inside jokes and Freudian symbolism. For a high school film geek like me, all this heavy-handed pretension was like manna.

Looking at the film now, it’s hard for me to take it as seriously as I did way back when, but what does persist and becomes clearer with each viewing is the obvious artistry on display and how much sheer outrageous fun it is to watch. So many movies today are all spectacle, with nary an idea in their heads. Ken Russell movies are so crammed full of ideas and subthemes that it frequently takes repeat viewings to even catch them all. Oh, and there's plenty of spectacle to spare, too.

In one of Tommy's more out-there scenes (if indeed the word "more" in reference to a Ken Russell film isn't a redundancy), pills and booze are offered as the Eucharist in the church of Marilyn Monroe.

If Tommy were a western, it would be a western with Indians, covered wagons, the cavalry, and stagecoaches; were it a war film, it would have air strikes, tanks, battalions and explosions every fifteen minutes. In short, Tommy is so much fun because it has too much of everything. The music is exhilarating (and loud) and the visuals are, in turns, brash, vulgar and ingenious. Most movies have at least one set piece scene; Tommy is ALL set piece scenes. This can make for a somewhat overwhelming viewing experience, but Ken Russell’s ambition and scope in Tommy is so gleefully grandiose and overreaching, it’s irresistible.

Surreal imagery-Tommy in a landscape of giant pinballs and flaming pinball machines

The title role may belong to Roger Daltrey but the film belongs to Ann-Margret. As Tommy’s troubled mother (understatement), Ann-Margret seems to sense that this is the role of a lifetime and attacks it with a commitment and ferocity that comes from a place very real. Her performance is so compelling that she pulls off the Herculean feat of anchoring the entire film (which could have easily slid into campiness) in a kind of emotional truth.

The pairing of the director of The Devils with the actress who stole a film from Elvis Presley was bound to produce a few sparks, but no one was prepared for the cinematic conflagration that was the “Champagne” musical number, popularly known as “The beans sequence.” If you really want to see an actor going all out, nerves exposed and raw, you need look no further than Ann-Margret’s Technicolor nervous breakdown in Tommy.Audacious isn't even the word.

It’s fascinating that a film propelled by end-to-end rock music is one so visually substantial it can be viewed with the sound turned completely off with no loss to its effectiveness. Ken Russell has a silent filmmaker’s grasp of the visual rhythms and compositions necessary to tell a story, and of all of his films, Tommy is the closest to pure cinema.

As a teen, my only records were movie soundtrack LPs (the film-geek thing) so, rather remarkably, Tommywas my introduction to rock music. How fitting then to be indoctrinated into the musical world of histrionic bombast, broad emotionalism, and specious spirituality by a film director whose career was built on the very same things.

Ann-Margret sent this photo and this accompanying note in 1976 following a letter I wrote gushing about her performance in Tommy. Do celebrities even do this now, or are you immediately placed on a "stalkers" list?

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. I have to wholeheartedly agree with you. Ann-Margret OWNS this movie!!! A very well deserved Academy Award nomination!!

    1. Though I think she's exceptional in "Carnal Knowledge", this has to be my favorite performance of hers. She is just amazing. All that misdirected energy from "Kitten with a Whip" is harnessed beautifully here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I met her one night after her performance in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas a few years back. She was gracious, and still so, so lovely. Bonus: I got to meet Patrick Dennis too (her hubby Roger Smith) !!