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, part theater of the absurd, and part post-60s drug-addled freak-out, Ken Russell’s 100% assault on the senses was the rock-opera, Tommy.

Significantly retooled from the 1969 double-album by The Who, Tommy is a quasi-spiritual parable about a boy rendered hysterically deaf, dumb and blind after seeing his father (Robert Powell ) killed by his mother’s lover (Oliver Reed, and, as the mother, Ann-Margret).

Witness To The Murder: Uh, who wouldn't be rendered deaf, dumb & blind by this?

Retreating even further into himself as an adult (The Who frontman, Roger Daltrey), Tommy develops a near-supernatural talent for pinball and is hailed as a pop culture prodigy. When an “accidental” fall through a mirror (brought about by his mother, who, at this point, is starting to make Joan Crawford look like Carol Brady) results in the miraculous restoration of his senses, Tommy willingly allows himself to be fashioned into a worldwide spiritual messiah. What with all that money and fame, things go operatically bad in a hurry.
Tommy Through The Looking Glass
Mother: Oops! Did I do that?

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.
Elton John as The Pinball Wizard

Tina Turner as the Acid Queen
Jack Nicholson as The Doctor

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