WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Traumatised by a childhood incident, Tommy Walker grows up deaf, dumb, blind and abused, to the diminishing despair of his mother and stepfather. All attempts at a cure fail until Tommy discovers pinball and becomes a hero to the youth; but fame, like other forms of idolatry, can be both fleeting and cruel.
As a tribute to the recently-departed [at the time of writing] Ken Russell, I’m going to break with my tradition of reviewing whatever film’s closest to hand to look at Tommy, Russell’s adaptation of The Who’s classic double album. Tommy is the son of Nora Walker (Ann-Margret), born in the aftermath of her fighter pilot husband’s presumed death in World War II. Mrs Walker finds new love with holiday camp worker ‘Uncle’ Frank (Oliver Reed), but their honeymoon is interrupted by the return of Captain Walker (Robert Powell), who is struck down by Frank with Tommy (Barry Winch, later Roger Daltrey) looking on. Nora and Frank frighten the boy into silence and also render him deaf and dumb, a malady from which nothing will rouse him: not the chemical inducements of a drug pushing gypsy (Tina Turner), nor the vicious beatings dished out by angel-faced Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas), nor molestation by Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon), nor a visit to idolatrous faith healers.
To his mother’s annoyance, Tommy’s only release comes when staring into a mirror; he also discovers a preternatural ability at playing pinball, giving him fame – and his parents a fortune – although a medical examination by Jack Nicholson’s doctor also fails to set him free. Mrs Walker ‘cures’ Tommy by throwing him through a mirror, and Tommy’s devotees multiply as they hear of the restoration of his senses, culminating in the creation of a camp where the faithful flock to re-live Tommy’s experiences – at a price.
Since Tommy’s a musical, and a sung-through one at that, it makes sense to discuss the music first; and in this respect, Ken Russell’s movie is infuriating. It’s louder than the original album, but unfortunately most of the volume is provided either by the addition of blaring synthesiser parts, or by the loud (if tuneful) singing of Ann-Margret and the tone-deaf shouting of Oliver Reed (Nicholson can’t sing either, but at least he’s quiet). Elton John sings Pinball Wizard well, and it’s nice to see the band on screen, but a piano line doesn’t add much to the song and The Who’s trademark destruction looks fake. The new songs and lyrics are little more than adequate, too.
The real musical highs are provided by rocking versions of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Eyesight to the Blind, featuring a moon-faced Eric Clapton and the extraordinary vocals of Arthur Brown; Tina Turner’s Acid Queen and Daltrey’s rendition of I’m Free also pass muster. Unfortunately, the synthesiser line dominates to the extent that the extraordinary rock talents of Townshend, Entwistle and Moon are insufficiently heard. Perhaps it’s better in ‘Quintaphonic’ sound.
As far as the story’s concerned, the film plainly lacks a strong narrative thread, though that’s hardly Russell’s fault. Indeed, as screenwriter as well as director, Russell does what he can to fashion a complete story out of Pete Townshend’s disjointed ideas (it’s worth recapping: boy loses his senses, recovers them through pinball and smashing through a mirror, and briefly becomes the new Jesus); the updating of the story from post-World War I to post-WWII works well, as does Mrs Walker and Frank’s exploitation to the hilt of Tommy’s ‘miracle cure’. Nevertheless, without any linking material (either spoken or sung) the film remains as episodic as the album and you have to wonder what certain bits achieve, specifically the jokey Sally Simpson, even if Russell’s daughter Victoria plays the part nicely.
More importantly, there’s the look of the film. From the overwrought overture onwards, Tommy is outré, unusual, and occasionally bordering on crazy, but here and there there are glimpses of genius: the ‘Church’ of Marilyn that doles out pills and booze as communion, giving a warning of the dangers of worshipping – or worse, becoming – a false idol; the commingling of images during Sparks, where fighter planes become crucifixes and poppies become pinballs; or more extreme still, the fantasies induced by the Acid Queen’s, erm, robot of injected pleasure. It has to be said that there are numerous things that are just silly, such as young Tommy spinning around on the beach with a black box on his head; or naff, such as Daltrey running on the spot in front of semi-random images. And it does go on a bit, so if you’re not entirely engrossed by the music, you may lose interest by the time Roger starts hang-gliding over biker gangs and greased-up rockers.
Meanwhile, you can make what you will of the totally gratuitous interlude with Ann-Margret writhing around as the adverts for beans, chocolate and washing powder literally burst from the screen: I don’t mind it at all, but that’s just a thing I have for Ann-Margret covered in beans – it’s certainly preferable to the wide-eyed, hysterical Ann-Margret who (at the director’s insistence, no doubt) exaggerates her way through the rest of the film – stop whipping your hair in your son’s face like that, madam! Daltrey is perfectly fine in the lead role (it looks as though he suffered for his art, which he did), while Reed is such a brooding presence (especially marching up the stairs during Fiddle About) that you can almost forgive his total inability to sing. Almost. One can’t, of course, condone the wanton destruction of some lovely antique pinball machines or, inadvertently, Southsea’s South Parade Pier.
Perhaps the best way to wrap up Tommy is by way of comparison with contemporaneous ‘rock opera’ Jesus Christ Superstar. In Jewison’s film of the Lloyd-Webber/Rice musical, the music was spot on but the visuals were dull and bland; Tommy is a near-total contrast in that the music often lacks the impact it should have through poor arrangement or singing, but the film works because the director knows how to put drive and energy into a film and assemble meaningful images, even though more than a few of them are barking mad. I have no doubt this was but a minor opus from Ken, but even so it stands as an accessible testament to his unique creativity and daring. Although, if it’s a cracking version of Tommy you’re after, you’d do better to find a live concert performance from the early 70s – it’s there that you’ll find what The Who are really about.