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 surrealist fever-dream, part theater of the absurd, and part post-'60s drug-addled freak-out; Ken Russell's 100% assault on the senses is the self-proclaimed rock-opera, Tommy.
One of the most phenomenal cinema experiences of this or any other time. 
Ann-Margret as Nora Walker
Oliver Reed as Frank Hobbs
Roger Daltrey as Tommy Walker

Not since Roman Polanski, that atheist genius of contemporary nihilism, was assigned to the darkly cynical Rosemary's Babyhas there ever been a more perfect match of director and subject. Ken Russell's theatrically baroque, visuals-as-narrative style is 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 one of the UK's most artistically fearless directors. 
In his TV biographies of classical composers for the BBC, and in the films The Music Lovers (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), and Mahler (1974), Ken Russell proved himself to be an undisputed visionary when it came to unearthing daringly evocative ways of melding music and imagery. A director for whom too much was never enough, I can't think of a soul better suited to transfer a rock opera to the big screen with all the genre-requisite exaggeration and excess.
The release of Tommy was poised as a '70s happening...and it didn't disappoint.
Certainly not when it came to its eye-popping cast of pop-cuture icons.
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, blind, and non-verbal 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 traumatized by Oliver Reed screaming in your face?

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 that serves to shield him from the paradoxical trauma of well-intentioned attempts to cure him backed up by thoughtless 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 only superficially cushion the pain of the responsibility she feels for Tommy's afflictions. But when her hysterics bring about his "accidental" fall through a plate-glass mirror, the miraculous restoration of his senses changes the course of all of their lives. Tommy instantly becomes a worldwide spiritual messiah, but discovers that this mock religion, which offers spiritual redemption through material acquisition, is yet but another existential dead end. 
I Am The Light
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 these crammed-to-overflowing two hours. In song, yet! Classical music devotee Russell seems creatively invigorated by his first foray into the world of Rock & Roll, and his inspired translation of the Who's opera to the screen is nothing short of dazzling. Always a director able to capture memorably vivid tableaux, Russell fills Tommy with striking and, in some instances, downright bizarre images and setpieces that 1975 audiences weren't quite prepared for.  
Nora & Captain Walker
Tommy is credited to three cinematographers. Their work is often breathtaking.

Tommy is chock full of spheres, globe motifs, religious iconography, inside jokes, and Freudian symbolism. All this heavy-handed pretension was like manna for a high school film geek like me.
Robert Powell as Captain Walker
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 more apparent 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.

Modern Family

If Tommy were a Western, it would be a Western with 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 turn, brash, vulgar, and ingenious. Most movies have at least one setpiece scene; Tommy is ALL setpiece scenes. Under any other circumstances, this would be a recipe for a somewhat overwhelming viewing experience. But Ken Russell's operatic ambition and vastness of scope are so gleefully grandiose and overreaching that I find Tommy to be just irresistible cinema.
Show Biz
The "Pinball Wizard" sequence, featuring The Who and Elton John is combat as rock concert
Organized religion and fame culture are skewered in a jaw-dropping sequence set in a church worshiping Marilyn Monroe 
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.
Tommy was Ann-Margret's first Best Actress Oscar nomination. In 1971 she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Carnal Knowledge, a film in which she played opposite Tommy's romantically smitten physician, Jack Nicholson

The pairing of the director of The Devils with the actress who stole an entire film from under Elvis Presley's nose 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." A song written expressly for the film, it communicates Nora's profound guilt, compounded by the riches and comfort that has come to her through Tommy's pinball success. In an attempt to blot out Tommy's image from both her mind and the television screen, which alternates close-ups of Tommy's staring, blameless eyes, with insipid commercials for baked beans, soap suds, and chocolate, Nora gets plastered. Everything comes to an emotional and visual head when Nora hallucinates the television set vomiting its material goods into her pristine white bedroom.
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. Understandably, this scene was all critics could talk about when the film was released, and even today I think it can't help but astonish. A primo example of truly inspired, virtuoso looniness.

It's fascinating to me that a film propelled by wall-to-wall rock music is also so visually stimulating; I can imagine someone could watch it without sound and still find it to be an exciting and compelling motion picture. Ken Russell has a silent filmmaker's grasp of the visual rhythms of dramatic storytelling. He's always been a director known for letting images do the talking, and with Tommy, he comes the closest he's ever been to achieving pure cinema.
Tommy's Primary Color Triad of Trauma
(The Acid Queen, Uncle Ernie, and Cousin Kevin)
As a teen, the only records I owned were movie soundtrack albums (the film-geek thing), so, rather remarkably, Tommy was my introduction to rock music. Purists, of course, would say that Tommy is to Rock what Dreamgirls is to R&B. But independent of questions on whether The Who's concept album conceit is the real thing or not, my love for this score eventually led to my expanding my record collection to include real-life, non-movie music of all stripes. How fitting then to be indoctrinated into the musical world of soaring theatrics, broad emotionalism, and specious spirituality by a film director whose entire career was built on those very things.

Ann-Margret (or her publicist) sent this photo and this accompanying note in 1976 following a letter I wrote gushing about her performance in Tommy. I always assumed messages and pictures from celebrities were PR products until I worked for actor Walter Matthau in the 1990s and saw that he personally answered his fan mail and autographed photos. Do stars even do this now, or are fans immediately placed on a "stalker" list?

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2010