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.
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 two hours. In song, yet! Classical music fan Russell, known to some as the King of Overkill, meets his match with Rock & Roll, which appears to have inspired him in ways few were prepared for in 1975. Always a director able to capture memorably vivid tableaux, Russell fills Tommy with bizarre and outright weird images and setpieces which, to this day, retain every bit of their ability to startle.
Nora & Captain Walker
Tommy is credited to three cinematographers, I'm not sure who is responsible for this image, but it is one of my favorites in a film loaded with favorites
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.
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 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.

Modern Family

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 setpiece scene; Tommy is ALL setpiece scenes. Under any other circumstances I would say this would be a recipe for a somewhat overwhelming viewing experience. But Ken Russell’s operatic ambition and vastness of scope is so gleefully grandiose and overreaching, 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 is 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, which has been compounded by the riches and comfort that has come to her by way of 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 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. Even today it stands as an example of virtuoso looniness of the most outrageous kind.

It’s fascinating to me that a film propelled by wall-to-wall rock music is also one so visually stimulating, I can well 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, and while he's always been a director known for letting images  do the talking, Tommy is for me the closest of his films to achieve 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 pertaining to 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 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 "stalker" list?

Copyright © Ken Anderson

About Ken Anderson
LA-based writer and lifelong film enthusiast. You can read more of his essays on films of the ’60s & ‘70s at Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For


  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) !!

  3. "which could have easily slid into campiness"
    O, but it did. With its story and art dressing and acting entourage it couldn't have been anything else.
    But right from the overture sounds on (on a first generation Moog Synthesizer, ugly!) I had mixed up feelings for Tommy. It was fun to hear Jack Nicholson sing, but Daltrey like a ventriloquis doll with an oiled washboard irritated me and all the cameos of pop stars were simply too much- the Elton John segment was no longer an attachment to 'Tommy', it was a clip from one of his concerts. I found screechy Tina Turner downright horrible and for some odd freudian reason Eric Clapton's bare feet obscene.
    Thank god there was the Ann-Margret/Oliver Reed coupling...they made Tommy WORK.

    In an interview about the Beans Sequence she told how after every take she was put under the shower, got her hair coiffed and was shoehorned into a clean gown, and that over and over again. It must have been great fun and dreadfully exhaustive at the same time.

    I remember seeing 'Viva Las Vegas' photo's of Ann and Elvis in a 1964 pop magazine, a sequence series of them bopping away (one of those moments showed her displaying a great duckface, I found it back in Google). Even without having seen the movie (I wasn't an Elvis fan and still ain't) I felt that she was his first female co-star who was really alive. All the others were just Mattel look-a-likes of Debby Reynolds and Annette Funicello. So the producer must have stared at the rushes in shock. A miracle the movie never got X-rated, to me she seemed wayyy too sexy for such teen movies (in which Elvis had to shave his chest for the beefcake scenes, say no more).

    All in all I have seen only a few Ann-Margret movies, it's time to catch up. I'll check out YouTube and Viooz.

    1. Hi Willem
      Ha! You can NEVER convince me that "Tommy" is camp (I took it waaay to seriously when I first saw it, and time hasn't yet given me that revisionist distance...yet), but I certainly can see why most people do.
      I love thatyou noted Eric Clapton's feet, which I cannot at all recall, but now you make me want to drag out the DVD.
      i remember reading about Ann-Margert and that beans scene, and honestly, she should have got the Oscar for that alone. I forgot how long it took to shoot, but she said that at least on the second day the beans/chocolate mix had started to grow a little rancid, but, ever the trooper, she plunged ahead (plus, as I'm sure you know, accident-prone Annie almost lost a finger thanks to the shards of TV class. She described the experience as first noticing the soap suds turning pink! I would have passed out!)
      I like your appreciation of Ann-Margret, who is a force of nature as far as I'm concerned, and was way too sexy for Elvis and most of the weak material she was given.
      As with "Tommy" she is usually the best thing in them. If you haven't seen it, you must check out "Kitten with a Whip" It'll make your hair curl!

  4. I will. I've just seen her in a movie with Kris Kristoffersen, Blue Rodeo.
    For me Tommy goes back 35 years, I never saw it again afterwards but it certainly made an impact. Yesterday I dipped into YT to look up a few scenes, the Beans Orgy sequence f.i. Well, I now think it's plain silly, and unfortunately that includes Ann Margret's behavior. You know, the sequence actually goes on for too long. Oh, and she didn't wear a gown but some glittery pants suit, yeah.
    But there are other scenes I still find great; 'What about the boy'; the intensity of the drama (it's a remarkably tight scene, excellent editing) and the facial expressions of Ann and Ollie! It's one of the better songs in the opera to begin with and both bring it off magnificently. Jack Nicholson has a very good moment, and there are more such gems, Nora whipping her son's face with her hair, LOL, was that Russell's idea, or hers?
    But things go wrong again in the sequence when Tommy is cured. Him lying spread out on the rocks like a gay centerfold... and seeing Ann Margret made me think: girl, you were dead tired (and she was probably freezing her ass off in that flimsy dress).
    So in general Tommy is uneven, one moment it's a wonderful musical choreographed with a lot of drive and speed, the next the visuals and songs and somewhat cramped words cause a feeling of embarrassment.

    1. You just named one of the Ann-Margret films I've never seen! So many of her 60s sex comedies are marginal to unwatchable, but the musicals or "dramas" are great.
      And you're right about the kind of almost operatic level performances Ken Russell got out of Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret. I do find myself kind of laughing at her final explosion with Tommy (hair whipping and all) but I always fall back on how I can't imagine another actress getting away with it.
      If I have a problem with the film at all, it's that Ann-Margret is (appropriately) muted in the final third, and I so miss her. Daltrey is gorgeous but he's no substitute. For me she's the life-force of the film and certainly the adrenaline.
      I had to laugh at your description of her being dead tired and probably freezing during that beach scene. So true!

    2. "I can't imagine another actress getting away with it."
      "it's that Ann-Margret is (appropriately) muted in the final third"
      I hadn't seen it that way, but yes, it only makes sense. Tommy is no longer a prop.
      Have you seen her 1961 Bill Baley screentest? Dynamite. But considering her outfit I think it was a 1963-64 test for Viva Las Vegas.
      And now I'm going to watch Bye Bye Birdy.

    3. Yes, I have seen that Bill Bailey screen test. And it's funny you noted that similarity of the outfit she wears in it to the one she appears opposite Elvis in. That look of heels, tights and top was her signature look which she had employed several years before "Vegas" appeared on the horizon. Rumor has it that Elvis' handlers would have had her dressed in an innocuous rehearsal outfit for the scene, and when Ann-Margret was seen in the rushes, panic reigned...after a string of vapid female co-stars, someone was at last upstaging Elvis. His handlers weren't happy, but Elvis was so besotted with her, he let her walk away with the film. He was smart enough to realize she only made him look better.
      When I look at that Bill Bailey screentest I'm always taken with what a huge transformation her look would undergo in just the next year, and how much larger her breasts became later in her career.
      Happy Bye Bye Birdie watching!

  5. You know how much I love the films of Ken Russell. Thanks so much for yet another post with which I completely agree!

  6. I first saw "Tommy" when I was 15 or so -- a quite vulnerable age for something like this -- and loved it. Up to that point I hadn't had much, if any, exposure to filmmaking heavy on symbolism and visual thinking, so I found it fascinating as well as oodles of fun. It's telling how much times and rating systems have changed that this was a PG-rated, mainstream theatrical release back in 1975!

    I myself have amassed a modest autograph collection over the years of various performers whose work profoundly touched me, mostly through fan mail, though I don't know how many of them would be counted as "celebrities" in the modern sense of the term. The standards for warranting that title have changed so much in the past 15 or so years; it's less a matter of talent than it once was. The most recent "acquistion" of mine is Douglas Hodge; I wrote him a fan letter (which was mostly in the form of a poem, because I found it useful for organizing my thoughts neatly and quickly) after listening to the cast album of the West End "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" musical and he sent back an autographed photo and personal note (which, if you can believe it, was itself a short poem). Later, when I actually saw the show in London I went to the stage door afterwards and met him; he was a perfect gentleman and even recognized my name when he signed my programme (Playbill). The man has a fascinating career to his credit; he's been active since the 1980s on stage -- Shakespeare, Pinter, big-ticket musicals -- with lots of character work in U.K. films and TV alongside that (even worked with Ken Russell in 1988 -- he's Lord Alfred Douglas/John the Baptist in the Oscar Wilde burlesque that is "Salome's Last Dance"), AND a modest side career as a singer-songwriter who has cut two albums of acoustic guitar-based numbers. He has a clutch of awards on both sides of the Pond, including the 2010 Best Actor in a Musical Tony, top stage directors seek him out...and yet he's not regarded as a "celebrity". Maybe we need to come up with a new title for extravagantly talented people who nonetheless are ignored by the mass media?

    1. Hi Rori
      I have a friend who teaches a film class in high school and he tells me that "Tommy" is still quite popular with the 15-year-old set. It's so visual it's like a primer for movie symbolism.
      I'm familiar with Douglas Hodge only through your mentioning him previously (although I did see him win his Tony Award on TV), but I love the story about getting his autograph. Always nice when a real pro is also a nice person. And you indeed make a good point about all these extravagantly talented people out there without even a fraction of the fame of those wastes of space who occupy reality shows and tabloid headlines. Celebrity is a dead word and fame a hollow achievement these days.
      Thanks for checking out these older posts!

  7. Yes, there are some camp elements in Tommy. But Tommy is in on the joke. Tommy can be a messy movie. But that's the point. Life is messy. Ann-Margaret's performance? Off-the-chain! And not just because it, at times may seem to some loud or over-the-top. There is subtlety in her performance--in her voice, in her eyes, in her carriage. Here, she is indeed a singing actress. Ann-Margret Regina!

  8. Stigwood: The anti-clerical/socio-critical content of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Evita, Fame, and Saturday Night Fever deserves significant historical credit and recognition, including his producing Oh, Calcutta! and The Dirtiest Show In Town, two milestones in terms of the sexual revolution (gay and straight) of the late sixties/seventies. Despite whatever junk he involved himself with, he deserves astute respect for this single characteristic. The likes of him would never be found in a corporate suite today.

  9. Have you ever seen QUADROPHENIA? To my mind, outside of concert films like WOODSTOCK and THE LAST WALTZ, this is the greatest rock and roll movie of all time. The music is mostly by The Who and its all on the soundtrack, but what an incredible movie! Its about two rival London gangs in the early sixties, the Rockers (who drive motorcycles and dress like Elvis) and the Mods (Scooters, suits and ties). The climax is a gang war which basically destroys the seaside town of Brighton with an unforgettable final scene involving a scooter roaring off the cliffs of Dover. Sting plays one of the funniest cameo parts in movie history. This was a life-changing movie for a lot of people, including Cameron Crowe and Liam Gallagher. This is one of those movies I'd definitely take to a desert island.

    1. That's some testimonial! No, I've never seen QUADROPHENIA, but not for having missed the opportunity. I saw the trailer for it back in 1979 or so and I just had a bad reaction to it. Looked very male (macho) very Angry Young Man, and very much out of my wheelhouse of interest.
      But I'm older now ('79 was the year of THE WARRIORS and it seemed there were a slew of street gang types of movies coming out, contributing to my apathy) and given your enthusiasm for it, maybe I got the wrong impression.
      Certainly not lacking for time to check out some older films that passed me by, so perhaps I should put QUADROPHENIA on my "To Watch" list.