Before MTV ever hit the airwaves, there was TOMMY, Ken Russell’s stylized cinematic vision of The Who’s 1969 ‘rock opera’. It was a match made in heaven, teaming Britain’s Wild Man of Cinema with the anarchic rock and roll of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon (not to mention England’s own enfant terrible, Oliver Reed ). Russell both captures the spirit of Townsend’s hard rock opus and expands on it visually with an all-out assault-on-the-senses musical featuring an all-star cast that includes an Oscar-nominated performance by Ann-Margret as the mother of “that deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball”!
Townshend, the group’s primary songwriter, had been experimenting with long-form rock’n’roll since the beginning, notably the nine minute suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” on their second album A QUICK ONE (retitled in America HAPPY JACK). TOMMY was born after The Who’s concept album THE WHO SELL OUT (everybody did concept albums back then), and was a critical and commercial success. Six years later, Russell adapted the rock opera for the screen; he was considered a true maverick in the filmmaking world, on which he’d unleashed such films as WOMEN IN LOVE, THE MUSIC LOVERS, and especially THE DEVILS, a film so controversial that it still shocks audiences to this day, and has never been shown in it’s raw, uncut version.
Russell threw everything into this psychedelic wonderland (with more cinematic references than I could count!), including that all-star cast I mentioned from the worlds of both Hollywood and rock. The Who’s charismatic lead singer Roger Daltrey plays Tommy, and his performance led to the lead in Russell’s later LISZTOMANIA and other film roles. Guitarist supreme Eric Clapton is The Preacher singing Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues standard “Eyesight to the Blind” at the Church of Marilyn Monroe, while Britain’s premier soul screamer Arthur Brown as The Priest belts out “Religion”. Tina Turner, dolled up like some kinda perverted Countess Dracula, does “The Acid Queen” amidst a sleazy porno shop setting. Maniac Keith Moon , The Who’s deranged drummer, is the perverted “Uncle Ernie” – and Moon’s propulsive drumming throughout most of the film (his successor Kenney Jones subs on a few tracks) is nothing short of astounding. No question: Best Rock Drummer Ever! Elton John knocks “Pinball Wizard” out of the park in a particularly bizarre sequence. Jack Nicholson’s singing as The Doctor is the only real disappointment – stick to acting, Jack!
Oliver Reed, who starred in Russell’s THE DEVILS and was a drinking bud of madman Moon, plays Tommy’s stepdad. He mugs it up shamelessly, fitting right in with the film’s lunacy, but as a singer… well, he’s a great actor (Ollie also sang in the 1968 Oscar-winning musical OLIVER!). Ann-Margret deservedly copped an Oscar nomination (losing to Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) as Tommy’s mother, even though she was just three years older than Daltrey as Tommy. She’s the star of this show, giving a spectacular performance, and her scene during “Smash the Mirror”, where she’s deluged with detergent, baked beans, and melted chocolate oozing through the TV screen, is an hallucinatory delight! And God, was she hot!
Russell “fiddled about” with some of the song sequences, adding some and deleting others in order to make Townshend’s opus more of a cinematic experience, and succeeded. The composer, who based his rock opera on the teachings of his spiritual guru Meher Baba, had no objections, and still praises Russell’s vision of his work. TOMMY is meant to be seen on the Big Screen, but even on the telly, it’s a rock’n’roll masterpiece you don’t want to miss!