Rockin’ in the Film World #18: The Who’s TOMMY (Columbia 1975)


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”!

The Who’s original album cover

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!

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 10: Halloween Leftovers

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Halloween has come and gone, though most people have plenty of leftovers on hand, including your Cracked Rear Viewer. Here are some treats (and a few tricks) that didn’t quite make the cut this year:

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ISLE OF THE DEAD (RKO 1945, D: Mark Robson)

Typically atmospheric Val Lewton production stars Boris Karloff as a Greek general trapped on a plague-ridden island along with a young girl (Ellen Drew) who may or may not be a vorvolaka (vampire-like spirit). This film features one of Lewton’s patented tropes, as Drew wanders through the woods alone, with the howling wind and ominous sounds of the creatures of the night. Very creepy, with another excellent Karloff performance and strong support from Lewton regulars Alan Napier, Jason Robards Sr, and Skelton Knaggs. Fun Fact: Like BEDLAM , this was inspired by a painting, Arnold Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead”.

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THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (Allied Artists 1954, D: Edward Bernds)

Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the gang  get mixed up with the creepy Gravesend family in a spooky old mansion, complete with mad scientists, vampires, a man-eating tree, a robot, and of course a killer gorilla in this above-average series entry. Sure it’s low budget and derivative as hell, but it’s also a lot of fun, with a better than usual supporting cast that includes John Dehner, Lloyd Corrigan, and Ellen Corby. Director Bernds and his co-screenwriter Ellwood Ullman put their Three Stooges experience to good use, and the result is a silly scare farce that even non-Bowery Boys fans will probably enjoy. Fun Fact: Ex-bartender Steve Calvert bought Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s old gorilla suit and appeared in JUNGLE JIM, THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (written by Ed Wood), and the awful BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA .

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THE OBLONG BOX (AIP 1969, D:Gordon Hessler)

AIP tried to continue their successful Edgar Allan Poe series with this film. Roger Corman was long gone, so Gordon Hessler took over the director’s chair. Vincent Price is still around though, as the brother of a voodoo victim who was prematurely buried, then dug up by graverobbers to seek revenge. Christopher Lee has “Special Guest Star” status, but isn’t given much to do as a Knox-like doctor using bodies in the name of science. The movie seemed a lot scarier when I saw it as a youth; unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up very well. The 24 year old Hillary Dwyer is much too young to play 58 year old Price’s fiancé. Fun Fact: Michael Reeves (THE SORCERERS , WITCHFINDER GENERAL) was scheduled to direct before his untimely death; this probably would’ve been a better film with him at the helm.

HAMMER FILM PRODUCTIONS 'HANDS OF THE RIPPER' (1971) STARRING ERIC PORTER, JANE MERROE AND ANGHARAD REES. Dir: PETER SASDY ABOUT TO BE RELEASED ON BLU RAY. THEBLACKBOXCLUB.COM

HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Hammer 1971, D: Peter Sasdy)

Minor but effective Hammer chiller about the daughter of Jack the Ripper (Angharad Rees) who’s possessed by daddy’s evil spirit, and the psychologist (Eric Porter) who tries to help her by using the then-new Freudian therapy techniques. It’s science vs the supernatural, with some good moments of gore, but the slow pace makes it definitely lesser Hammer. I must admit I loved the ending, though. Fun Fact: Director Sasdy filmed several Hammer horrors in the early 70’s, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and COUNTESS DRACULA. He also was responsible for the Pia Zadora vehicle THE LONELY LADY, winning himself the prestigious Razzie Award in 1983!

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BURNT OFFERINGS (United Artists 1976, D: Dan Curtis)

A family rents an eerie old country home for the summer, and are soon pitted against an evil force. With all that talent in front of (Bette Davis , Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckert) and behind (producer/director/writer Curtis , co-writer William F. Nolan, DP Jacques Marquette) the camera, I expected a much better film. Even the great Miss Davis can’t help this obvious haunted house story to rise above the level of a made-for-TV potboiler. Disappointing to say the least. Fun Fact: Production designer Eugene Lourie directed the sci-fi flicks THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH , and GORGO.