Columbia Pictures/RSO Records
Directed by Ken Russell
Produced by Ken Russell and Robert Stigwood
Screenplay by Ken Russell and Pete Townsend
Music by The Who
Cinematography by Dick Bush/Ronnie Taylor
Edited by Stuart Baird
TOMMY is absolutely nuts. There’s no other way to describe this movie, which might best be seen today as a cultural artifact if nothing else. After all, it’s nothing more than a bunch of MTV (before there was an MTV) videos strung together in a loose story based the classic rock opera album performed by The Who. Everything in the movie serves the overwhelming theme of organized religion gone wrong and Ken Russell sacrifices everything to beat us over the head with this theme relentlessly. However the movie does have Ann-Margaret masturbating with a pillow while swimming in a sea of baked beans and any movie that has that scene in it can’t be all bad, can it?
TOMMY tells the story of a young British lad named Tommy Walker (Barry Winch) whose father (Robert Powell) is a decorated World War II bomber pilot who is lost during a mission and presumed dead. Tommy’s mother Nora (Ann-Margret) is starved for attention and while visiting Tommy at summer camp falls in lust with Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed) one of the camp’s supervisors. Frank returns home with Tommy and Nora. It isn’t long before Frank and Nora are spending their days boozing it up and fornicating like crazy. Not that that’s such a bad thing. Who wouldn’t want to spend all day boozing it up and fornicating like crazy with Ann-Margret?
Things start to go really wrong when Captain Walker returns home unexpectedly. Turns out he was shot down, held prisoner and it took him all this time to get back home. He interrupts Frank and Nora while they’re having boozy sex and in the following argument, Frank accidentally kills Captain Walker just as Tommy, awakened by the yelling of the adults walks in on them. Nora and Frank sit Tommy down and repeatedly sing to him; “It never happened. You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it, and you’ll never say a word.” Tommy takes them literally: from that moment on he’s struck deaf, dumb and blind.
Tommy grows up to become Roger Daltrey while being sexually, psychologically and physically abused by Frank’s relatives, Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) and Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas). Even Frank gets in on the fun by taking Tommy to The Acid Queen (Tina Turner) who attempts to bring Tommy out of his catatonia by means of sex and a metal sarcophagus studded with hypodermic needles.
Nora puts her trust in The Specialist (Jack Nicholson) to cure her son but it’s all to no avail as he just takes her money, flirts with her and doesn’t cure her son. And then one day Tommy wanders into a junkyard and finds a pinball machine. Which he plays with a supernatural skill that soon propels him into worldwide fame and fortune that climaxes in a showdown with The Pinball Wizard (Elton John) that snaps Tommy out of his catatonia. From then on he promotes a religion based on playing pinball while simulating being deaf, dumb and blind: (“Put in your earplugs, put on your shades….you know where to put the cork!”) Nora and Frank exploit the commercial side of Tommy, selling Tommy T-shirts, pinball playing kits, and even opening up an expensive resort where you can pay through the nose to play pinball like Tommy and find spiritual enlightenment. Eventually, the suckers realize they’re being suckered and they revolt in an apocalyptic orgy of murder and violence that changes Tommy’s fate forever.
I’m going to go on record as saying that I’m not really overwhelmed by the music of The Who or their impact on rock and roll. I remember seeing TOMMY in the theaters as I was in High School when the movie originally came out and the crowd I hung around with wanted to see the movie. And I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years and most recently watched it on Turner Classic Movies all the way through. And I’m still not all that impressed.
It’s actually a pretty dull movie unless you happen to love Ann-Margret like I do. I can watch her in anything (“Viva Las Vegas” in which she co-starred with Elvis Presley is one of my Favorite All Time Movies) This is the movie where she’s watching Tommy on television as he beats The Pinball Wizard and she hurls a bottle of champagne through the screen. The screen erupts in an explosion of soap bubbles that fills the room which then turns into baked beans and chocolate. Ann-Margret swims around in that mess and masturbates on top of an oversize penis-shaped pillow until she orgasms. You have to see it to believe it but I don’t think you’re gonna have much of a problem. I know I didn’t.
As for the music…quite frankly most of it I found it kinda bland. The movie is a rock opera that means that everything is sung and there’s no spoken dialog. But unlike say, “Jesus Christ, Superstar” most of the songs struck me as remarkably pretentious and boring and do nothing to further the story or the characters. However, the gorgeous Ann-Margaret is absolutely wonderful all throughout the movie. She not only can sing but she can act while she’s singing and that goes a long way. And amazingly enough both Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson pull off their singing duties with professional respectability. They’re not singers by any stretch but they do a better job of it than you would think.
The main show piece of the movie for me was Elton John singing “Pinball Wizard” which he does was wearing these really goofy ten foot tall combat boots and sparkly glasses that look as if they were made especially for him at ‘Geeks R Us’. Roger Daltrey makes the most of “See Me, Feel Me” “I’m Free” and “Listening To You” especially at the end of the movie where he survives the slaughter of the pinball camp and climbs to the top of a mountain in a blatantly symbolic act that had me rolling my eyes in exasperation.
So should you see TOMMY? Ah, it’s up to you. I suspect that if you’re a fan of The Who you own the multiple versions of the album and have seen the movie already so nothing I say will make a difference. If you’re a fan of Ann-Margaret it’s most definitely worth seeing as it’s a movie where she really has a chance to go nuts. And I liked Oliver Reed in this one as well. But Oliver Reed is one of my favorite actors and I think he never got the respect he deserved. He starred in one of my favorite movies; “The Assassination Bureau” and he was outstanding as Athos in both “The Three Musketeers” and ‘The Four Musketeers” directed by Richard Lester.
I’m not going to say it’s a bad movie or one that’s not worth watching if you’ve never seen it before and have a couple of hours to kill. It’s just not my Rock Opera of choice. YMMV.