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


  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.

  10. Ken, thank you for this excellent, entertaining and sage summary of a film I only saw until quite recently. A-M blew me away in this, utterly fascinating (I can't decide if it is the best or worst) film. Kudos to you

    1. What a lovely comment. Thank you! I can't imagine what this film looks like or how it comes across to fresh eyes. I'm just glad you somehow found your way here and that you found Ann-Margret as riveting a presence as I and so many countless others have.
      And I think EVERY Ken Russell film leaves the viewer wondering if they've just seen the best or worst film they ever saw. Thank you for commenting!

  11. Hi, Ken!

    Here I am revisiting another one of your "ancient" posts. I watched the movie again last night and still enjoyed it but had a couple of thoughts:

    For a director known for pushing the envelope of sexual content in his films, TOMMY feels weirdly sexless, except for that one scene between Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson. I have never, ever considered Nicholson a "sexy" actor, even in CHINATOWN or CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (which is sort of the point of that movie) but this scene is absolutely electric. I'm not sure, however, why it's in the film except to show Norah Walker what she's been missing.
    Like one of the above posters, a revisit finds the famous "rockstar" cameos kind of disappointing. I've always loathed Eric Clapton even before he went full on racist anti-vaxer and find the Marilyn church scene obvious to the point of boredom. And the idea of casting Tina Turner, twitching and leering with the camera pointed up her nostrils while she struts around a tiny garret, is really depressing. At least John Landis let Aretha Franklin cut loose in her one BLUES BROTHERS scene. "Pin Ball Wizard" works better, although those giant platform shoes pretty much imprison Elton John so that all he can't do is grimace and point endlessly at Roger Daltrey. I think the best of the rockstar cameos by far is Paul Nicholas (of "Heaven on the 7th Floor" fame) as Cousin Kevin. What a fabulous, crystalline tenor he has, arguably the best singer in the movie.
    Finally, although Ann-Margret's limited role in the last half hour is a problem, that section has the best songs in the movie. "Sally Simpson" starring the director's own daughter is my favorite. That number is a self-contained little masterpiece.

    1. Hello Kip - It was delightful going down memory lane with you and TOMMY, a film I watch about once every year. Your observations are great. And great fun. For they reflect what is sometimes the natural perspective-shift that comes upon us as we grow older and change, but the films we love stay the same. It's a phenomenon that fascinates me because I think it always reveals more about the person than the film itself.
      I don't know what you thought about TOMMY when you first saw it, but it sounds as though time has made you more cleared-eyed and observant about things you perhaps responded to more emotionally or viscerally when you were younger.

      I am on the same page with you when it comes to Nicholson and how he comes across in his scene. He's NEVER been sexy to me, but he really registers with the sex appeal in that scene.
      Likewise, I love what you have to say about Paul Nicholas, whose wonderful performance is often overlooked because of his more famous co-stars. I too think he nails his sequence beautifully.
      And I also think it's perceptive of you to note what effect Ann-Margret's limited participation in the film's third act has on the film. Perhaps even a necessary one…as I personally would find myself challenged to pay any attention to Tommy's journey of self-discovery had Ann-Margret remained in the vicinity effortlessly stealing scenes. And yes, the Sally Simpson number is a masterpiece of storytelling.
      Thank you for revisiting this ancient post with your fresh insights. You explain your points so well, and bring up such clear examples to illustrate them that you don't encourage the reader to agree with you, so much as get inside your head and temporarily share your experience.
      Thanks again for contributing!