Tommy is, hysterical, overbearing, ghoulish and often very silly. Needless to say, these are only some of its good points. What would be disastrous flaws coming from most directors are turned into positive virtues in the hands of Ken Russell, working here at the very peak of his form. I can’t think of many other British films of the mid-1970s that are so completely and utterly alive as pieces of cinema – and at least one of others that I would name is the demented Lisztomania, also directed by Russell. Although he is wide open to the criticism of being vastly over the top, he brought a visual invention and energy to a national cinema that was growing stagnant and is, in my opinion, as significant a figure in British film history as Powell and Pressburger in the way that he rejected an artistic dead-end of excessive naturalism in favour of the supremacy of visual imagination. Some people find this incoherent and exhausting but it seems to me that Tommy is a case in which his style is perfectly suited to the content.
When The Who released the album “Tommy” in 1969, it was variously hailed as a masterpiece or self-pitying, pretentious nonsense. Time has been fairly kind to it, largely because the musicianship is so fantastic throughout and Townsend’s witty, barbed lyrics have aged very well. The story of the ‘Rock Opera’, as it was described, is pretty ludicrous but strong enough to act as a peg upon which to hang an impressive range of music styles. Ken Russell’s screenplay changes certain elements – notably the identity of the man who is killed – but keeps the basic structure. Tommy is a young boy whose father (Powell) has gone missing in action during World War 2. His mother Nora (Ann-Margret) takes up with Uncle Frank (Reed), a seedy spiv who moves in to the family home. One night, Tommy’s father returns but, in a primal scene which is witnessed by the boy, is killed by Frank. Bullied by both Frank and his mother into believing that “you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it”, Tommy retreats into a self-imposed state of total non-contact with the world and becomes blind, deaf and dumb. As he grows up and is abused by his family in a variety of ways, Tommy finds sudden celebrity through his unlikely ability at the pinball table and he gradually becomes a cult figure for young people throughout the world. His Uncle Frank soon sees an opportunity for making a huge profit from this new religion. But his cult comes at a personal price, one which is eventually faced by all Messiahs.
Whatever you think of the cod-Freudian psychology which is being messed around with here, there’s no doubt that it’s ideal material for Russell to explore with his patented mix of delirious imagery and revved-up pantomime. From the first scene – a gorgeous composition repeated at the end – he treats the material with an interesting mixture of literal-mindedness and abstract surrealism. There is no dialogue used, except for the occasional shout of “Tommy”, and the visuals have to work pretty hard to sustain the narrative during the lengthy guitar breaks between songs. It says a lot for Russell that the film, whatever its other faults, is never dull or predictable. Occasionally, he follows the lyrics and is very faithful to the original conception – the holiday camp scene at the beginning is a good example. But elsewhere, the imagery has an extraordinary primitive force, getting into your head with the kind of disturbing overtones that you’d prefer to forget. Sometimes, it’s just a single image that disturbs – Tommy covered in bleeding poppies, Uncle Ernie and his enema bulbs – and sometimes it’s a whole sequence. The extended sadism of the Cousin Kevin scene is brilliantly transposed from song to screen, for example, and the deeply strange sequence in the chapel devoted to Marilyn where mother takes Tommy in the hope of finding a cure. Throughout, the colours have the richness of a vivid nightmare and when the music and images come together perfectly – as in the whole Acid Queen and Pinball Wizard sequences – the effect really is overpowering. The usual complaints of Russell going over the top and ‘not being true to the facts’ don’t apply here, which is why this material suits him so well.
As there is no dialogue, the actors and musicians are required to embody dramatic concepts rather than play characters. Some of them do this to perfection. The disgustingly spivvy Uncle Frank is one of his best roles that Oliver Reed ever had and he glories in the repulsiveness of the man. He doesn’t need lines – we know the filthy things going through his mind simply from the look of his face. As so often, he is one huge, walking dirty joke. Keith Moon is wonderful as Uncle Ernie, all prep-school diction and wandering hands and the small role of the Pinball Wizard is ideally suited to Elton John’s mid-1970s persona. I’d also put in a good word for Jack Nicholson who not only sings beautifully but also gives the tiny role of the psychiatrist an unexpected gravitas. The lingering looks of desire between him and Tommy’s mother are an added bonus – largely provided by the off-screen chemistry between the actors. Best of all are Paul Nicholas – utterly vile as Cousin Kevin – and the great Tina Turner, who is so strong as the Acid Queen that her five minutes of the film doesn’t seem quite enough. Films have never been very good at capturing the charismatic danger of rock singers but this is one case in which a particular talent has been caught at its most turbulent – it’s hard to square this Turner with the distinguished soul diva of the 1990s.
Otherwise, the casting isn’t quite so successful. Roger Daltrey, who seemed to harbour delusions of acting ability, is fine as Tommy when he’s just required to stand there and look martyred but once he regains his sight, he hasn’t got the slightest hold on the character and he gets lost. It doesn’t help that the final quarter of the film is all over the place but it needed a stronger presence to keep it together. Eric Clapton is wasted – and looks deeply embarrassed – and Robert Powell’s usual quality of pained sincerity is wheeled out once again. As for Ann-Margret, in the most difficult role, she tries so hard that it pains me to say that she’s not really very good. She never looks comfortable either as a working class mother or as a noveau riche waster and the scene in which she is covered in baked beans and milk is mortifying. Her singing is lovely but she seems miscast. I think the problem might be that she tries to give a careful, internally consistent performance when in the design of the film, all she is required to do is look iconic – a worse actress might have actually been more effective.
Musically, the film is a mixed bag. Many people, myself included, think that the original album was far superior in terms of production and performance. There are three numbers added to fill out the storyline, none of them particularly memorable. The use of synthesisers seems a little overdone here and the guitar solos lack the accumulating power of the original record. If you love the record then it’s quite alarming to hear “It’s a boy, Mrs Walker, it’s a boy” sung in a female voice and this jarring effect continues throughout the film. The backing for some of the songs by Entwistle, Townsend and Moon is typically electric and it’s wonderful to see Moon going mad at the drums in his usual fashion. The performances vary from singer to singer. The best seem to me to be Elton John’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ – the song was already campy and is well suited to John’s vocal style; Keith Moon’s ‘Uncle Ernie’; Tina Turner’s ‘Acid Queen’; and Daltrey’s final, joyous ‘I’m Free’. Good numbers like ‘See Me, Feel Me’ seem to somehow get lost. As for the non-singers, Nicholson and Ann-Margret come off best, while Oliver Reed snarls his way through “Bernie’s Holiday Camp’ in an amusingly thuggish manner. However, there are tantalising hints of what might have been in Townsend’s revelation that Stevie Wonder was originally approached to play the Pinball Wizard. I would have loved to hear his take on the song, particularly given the spectacular form he was on as a performer in the mid-1970s.
Tommy is a flawed film but it’s incredibly affecting as a sensory experience. The themes it explores – child abuse, mental illness, drug addiction, commercial religion – remain as relevant now as they were thirty years ago and the treatment of them here is a strange mixture of exploitation and sincerity. This isn’t unusual for Russell – the paradoxical equation of commerce and feeling is all over The Devils for example, and in his later films about composers, I don’t think Russell thinks that there is any necessary clash between his sleazy conflation of fact and fiction and his love for the historical figures and their music. In some respects, the film is exhausting and Russell-haters won’t find anything to change their minds but there’s enough evidence of his fundamental talent here to make it a hugely rewarding experience.
Odyssey’s new two disc set of Tommy is a pretty nice package although not quite as pleasing as I’d hoped it might be from the early announcements. Luckily, in the ways that really matter, it comes out very well.
The film has been transferred in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s an excellent transfer, full of life and detail, that makes the film look as good as it ever has done. Russell’ characteristic use of colour and vivid lighting demands a certain sharpness and attention to detail and Odyssey’s disc fulfils this requirement. There’s loads of detail throughout, a filmic appearance without excessive grainy texturing and the very occasional compression artefacts – largely in the misty scenes - don’t spoil the overall effect.
Two soundtrack options are included. A Dolby Stereo mix is included, stretching across the front channels but not in a very exciting way. However, the ‘Quintophonic” recording of the film, discussed in one of the extra features, is used as the basis of a superb Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The vocals are contained in the front channels and the backing tracks come from the surrounds. Turn the volume up loud – an essential part of viewing the film, especially for the first time - and you will be completely drawn into the world of the film.
The extras are all contained on the second disc. The original publicity for the disc suggested the presence of an audio commentary from Ken Russell, a prospect that had me salivating with delight, but this has not appeared in the finished product. I am however endebted to readers who have informed me that a commentary has been rated by the BBFC so it could well have merely been a omission from the check disc. The bonus features on the version I received are still very good value however.
Along with the original trailer and a press promo compilation of various interview snippets, we get a collection of interesting and in-depth interviews. The longest is with Pete Townsend, running 56 minutes, and it’s a very strong piece. Townsend is a very eloquent speaker and he goes through the ideas behind the album, the transition from album to film and the filming itself. The interviewer Matt Kent prompts him from time to time but he is more than willing to talk in detail and the result is fascinating. More quirky but still riveting is a 20 minute piece with Ken Russell – apparently interviewed by Mark Kermode, who is unseen – that is extremely odd. Russell adopts his usual persona of a demented Cambridge don and comes out with some very funny comments. Whether it gives you any real insight into his working methods is a moot point but it’s certainly fun to watch. Briefer interviews with Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margret are also included. Finally, “The Story of the Sound” is a discussion about the dubbing of the film into Quintophonic sound, with music editor Terry Rawlings and dubbing mixer Ray Merrin. This is an interesting behind-the-scenes technical feature which is a very useful primer on the whys and wherefores of film sound.
No subtitles are included on the disc for either the film or the special features.
Tommy is a flamboyant, exciting fantasy musical which deserves more attention. It’s clearly one of Ken Russell’s most effective films and his directorial flair carries it through some rough patches. The DVD isn’t as ‘special’ as you might have hoped but it presents the film very well indeed.
Tommy is released to buy on the 14th June 2004