Posted April 13, 2011 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – Tommy


There is a scene in Ken Russell’s 1975 TOMMY which ranks among the most remarkable and ridiculous visions ever put on film: Ann-Margret, in a swing of drunken rage, throws a champagne bottle at a television set. The bottle smashes the television’s screen, and waves of soap suds and baked beans come pouring out. Ann-Margret then writhes on the floor, covered head-to-toe in baked beans.

This scene captures everything that is wonderful and awful about the big screen adaptation of The Who’s rock opera. TOMMY is an anything-goes phantasmagoria that pushes at the borders of good taste and good sense. Often, it falls over its own feet in the process – but in sterling moments, it reaches a new high in grotesque overkill that makes it truly captivating.

TOMMY can be seen as an assault on Britain’s ossified socio-economic system: the “Bernie’s Holiday Camp” number provides a nasty/funny look at postwar genteel shabbiness, while the settings that frame “Acid Queen” and “Go to the Mirror” reflect the extremes of low-rent squalor and posh excess. Tommy’s liberation from a life without sight, hearing and speech is then exploited with a crass style of blatant capitalism that was alien to welfare state Britain (although it was later cultivated in the Thatcher years and thereafter).

But on the other hand, perhaps that’s just over-thinking things. TOMMY can also be seen as vintage-70s mindless fun. The Who’s rollicking score gets a full-blown treatment with icons Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John in rare big screen appearances. (None of them look particularly comfortable on screen, but their high decibel levels more than compensates). Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed may have seemed like unlikely candidates for rock opera performances, but they pull off their roles with energy to spare Roger Daltrey’s Tommy looks good and sings well, though bandmate Keith Moon showed the possibility of genuine movie stardom with his hilarious comic pop-ups as the wonderfully atrocious Uncle Ernie. (Jack Nicholson’s guest appearance as the oleaginous physician Dr. Quackson singing with a British accent, no less is the real scene-stealer).

Still, vintage-70s keeps TOMMY stuck in a particular era that makes it seem like a relic instead of a timeless classic – and if you don’t believe me, try finding a pinball machine arcade today! On the whole, Russell’s films suffer from short shelf lives especially his earlier work, which was considered daring and bold in first release but now seems dreary. TOMMY holds up better than most Russell films, due primarily to The Who’s score, which never went out of date. Perhaps the best way to enjoy TOMMY is via YouTube, where clips of the individual music sequences stand out from the chaos and shine on their own merit.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.