Captain Walker (Robert Powell) meets and marries Nora (Ann-Margret). Then the Captain goes off to the War as a bomber pilot and is shot down and feared dead. Nora brings their son Tommy (Barry Winch as a child) up on her own and soon enters a relationship with Frank (Oliver Reed). Then one day Captain Walker comes home, and in the altercation with Nora and Frank he is killed. Tommy witnesses this, and the shock renders him deaf, dumb and blind. Over the years Nora and Frank try to find a cure for Tommy (Roger Daltrey) without success. Then Tommy discovers a talent for pinball...
The Who had been in existence for five years by 1969, and had had eight UK top ten hits by that point. They remain one of the leading and most influential rock bands of the time, with John Entwistle’s bass often a lead instrument, playing against the violence of Pete Townshend’s guitar and Keith Moon’s drumming. However, lead songwriter Townshend had greater ambitions than three-minute singles. You can see this in songs like the multi-part “A Quick One, While He’s Away” from the album A Quick One. There is also “I Can See for Miles” from The Who Sell Out, with the album’s conceptual linkings by means of parody jingles, and the “mini-opera” “Rael” which ends it. But Tommy, released in 1969, was a step further, a rock opera spread over four sides of vinyl, mostly written by Townshend. It soon became a mainstay of The Who’s live sets.
Then, five years later, came the film. Ken Russell had made his reputation on television in the 1960s before breaking into feature films, and his feeling for music was evident from the outset. Several of his films were biopics of great composers (three of them released on Blu-ray by the BFI as Ken Russell:The Great Composers, reviewed here) Russell was a classical music fan, but clearly he recognised something in Townshend’s work. Russell’s script is generally faithful to the original album, though it does update the story from the 1920s with Tommy born in the last years of World War II. While The Who can be seen playing in the film in two numbers, Russell and Townshend brought in others: not just Ann-Margret but also among them Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Paul Nicholas, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. Turner’s blistering performance of and as “The Acid Queen” and John’s of “Pinball Wizard” (which was released as a single, making number seven in the UK in 1976) are probably the definitive versions of those songs.
All the dialogue is sung, and that brings us to Oliver Reed. While undoubtedly a fine actor, who had worked with Russell several times previously, he’s clearly a limited singer to say the least. And that’s without noting that he’s up against Ann-Margret for much of the time. But somehow it doesn’t matter and he puts a lot of feeling into his role. (The same could be said of Jack Nicholson, but he’s only in one scene.) You can tell which of the two is the trained singer and dancer, and Ann-Margret walks off with much of the film, winning a Golden Globe and nominated for an Oscar, and gamely drenched in chocolate and baked beans in one key scene.
Roger Daltrey made his acting debut in the title role. While he wasn’t the band’s songwriter, he was the frontman, and was at the peak of his rock-god charisma. He doesn’t get to sing until three-quarters of the way through, starting off “I’m Free” with a sustained high note that simply cuts through you. Daltrey had acting ambitions and began to pursue them, beginning with the title role in Russell’s next film Lisztomania.
The band’s drummer, Keith Moon, appears as Tommy’s lecherous and abusive Uncle Ernie. That scene, and the previous one showing Tommy’s ill-treatment by his Cousin Kevin (Nicholas), are the reason for the film’s 15 certificate (AA – fourteen and over – originally). Child abuse, sexual or otherwise, was not a common subject in popular entertainment at the time the album came out. Townshend, the victim of long-buried abuse himself, couldn’t write these two songs, “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About”, so bassist John Entwistle wrote and sung them on the album. For a genre often associated with upbeat entertainment, for a musical Tommy is frequently pretty dark, and that’s before we get to the final act, with Tommy a messianic figure turned on by his disciples.
Then there are the visuals. If you find big-screen Russell over the top, bombastic and frequently lacking in taste, you won’t change your mind here. All this is true: it’s a loud film, set to music by one of the legendarily loudest bands around at the time. Its influence on the then-nascent form of the pop video cannot be overstated and individual sequences are stunning, though for me the film does flag in its final act. With many of his earlier films about composers, Russell frequently let the music play over his visuals, and to some extent that’s what is happening here. Tommy was the first and only film to have a Quintophonic (five-channel) soundtrack printed via magnetic stripe on film prints. It was only shown that way in a limited number of cinemas and the process soon became obsolete when Dolby Stereo arrived. In fact, the first Dolby Stereo film was Lisztomania. Now it has a new cinema reissue, in new-fangled digital prints and soundtrack. Play it loud!
Tommy has a cinema reissue, as part of the BFI’s Musicals season, from 22 November
Dir: Ken Russell | Cast: Ann-Margret, Elton John, Oliver Reed, Roger Daltrey | Writers: John Entwistle (additional material), Keith Moon (additional material), Ken Russell (screenplay), Pete Townshend (rock opera), The Who (by)