Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tommy (1975)

          Interesting as case study in what happens when two artists from different mediums bring their equally strong visions to bear on the same project, Tommy is eccentric British filmmaker Ken Russell’s visualization of the Who’s famous “rock opera” LP, which is arguably the crowning achievement of Who songwriter Pete Townshend’s career. Townshend’s ambitious musical cycle uses rock songs to tell a complete narrative, and the strain of this massive storytelling effort shows in the record’s inconsistency; for every incisive moment like “The Acid Queen,” sung from the perspective of a drug-peddling prostitute, there are clumsily literal tunes along the lines of the paired set “Go to the Mirror!” and “Smash the Mirror.” It’s commendable that Townshend maintained his aesthetic focus, but not every song is a winner. Furthermore, the narrative is ludicrous: After a young man is rendered blind, deaf, and dumb through melodramatic circumstances, he becomes a pinball champion and then a messiah for young followers who are inspired by his surmounting of physical challenges and his eventual recovery of his senses.
          Predictably, the storyline is even sillier in filmic form, because Russell illustrates many of Townshend’s overwrought images literally—and when Russell takes liberties, he adds childish flourishes like the scene in which Tommy’s mother (Ann-Margaret) gets hosed down with geysers of baked beans while writhing in sexual delight. Plus, the less said about Russell’s infatuation with oversized props and phallic symbols, the better. In fact, Russell’s apparent desire to live up to his reputation for outrageousness is Tommy’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness—adapted by a less whimsical director, Tommy might have become unrelentingly grim, but at the same time, Russell’s excess makes it impossible to take the movie seriously, because it’s all way too camp.
          Still, Russell creates a handful of memorable scenes, and the combination of lively music, offbeat casting, and speedy pacing keeps Tommy moving along. Who singer Roger Daltrey plays Tommy as an adult, relying on commitment and intensity instead of dramatic skill, and the other members of the Who lurk on the movie’s periphery, with the exception of madman drummer Keith Moon, who plays Tommy’s pedophile uncle. Ann-Margret is quite terrible as Tommy’s mother, overacting ridiculously and warbling her songs, though Oliver Reed gives an effectively seedy performance a Tommy’s scumbag stepfather. Jack Nicholson’s brief appearance as a doctor seeking to treat Tommy’s afflictions represents pointless stunt casting, but fellow guest stars Elton John and Tina Turner make important contributions in their supporting roles.
          John, of course, sings Tommy’s most famous song, “Pinball Wizard,” so effectively that John’s cover of the tune became a chart hit; similarly, his onscreen appearance in a cartoonish costume echoes the performer’s over-the-top ’70s stage persona. Turner, despite being photographed grotesquely with fisheye lenses and such, rips the screen apart with her wailing, wild number as the Acid Queen, providing a go-for-broke energy the rest of the movie fails to match.

Tommy: FUNKY

1 comment:

Tommy Ross said...

I saw this in the theaters when it came out in 75, I was 13 years old. But it was my mom who was completely freaked out. She demanded we leave during the Uncle Ernie scene but somehow I convinced her to stay and we got through the whole picture.

Still to this day I feel Ken Russell went way over the top with his representation and I would love to see this done with the right director. Both Tommy and Quadrophenia, brilliant masterpieces of classic rock failed to translate that to the screen.