Mention Ken Russell to most people and chances are the movie they’ll think of is Tommy, based on the rock opera of the same name by Pete Townshend of The Who’s. It’s a movie I’ve avoided seeing for years, much as I revere Ken Russell. And it’s definitely a mixed bag.
Tommy is a boy born during the Second World War. His father is a British bomber pilot who is posted as missing in action. After the war his mother finds a new love, at a seaside holiday camp. The father returns and is killed by the mother and her lover. The shock of witnessing the killing renders Tommy deaf, dumb and blind. He suffers various indignities at the hands of an assortment of strange characters - his crazy cousin Kevin, his crazier Uncle Ernie, and is given psychedelic drugs and encounters the Acid Queen.
Tommy eventually discovers an unexpected skill - he becomes the greatest pinball player in the history of the world. He and his family become fabulously rich as a result but pinball is only the start. Tommy will go on to found a major religious cult, and will endure further sufferings.
It’s a story that gave Ken Russell the chance to indulge his visual imagination to the full without having to fret to much about narrative coherence. It’s essentially a string of musical numbers, rather like a linked series of lavish music videos, and the episodic structure offers the opportunity to present a succession of visual set-pieces. Each set-piece has its own visual style, its own mood.
So far so good. But there are some problems. The first problem is that the rock opera as a concept is one of the worst ideas in the history of western civilisation. Don’t get me wrong. I like rock’n’roll and I like opera. But the two should never, ever be mixed. Just as rock musicians should never have been permitted to consort with symphony orchestras.
The second problem is that the music is awful. This is of course a matter of personal taste. I like some of The Who’s early material but they rapidly degenerated into bombastic stadium rock of the worst sort.
The third problem is that Pete Townshend was getting into some serious hippie-dippie territory at the time he wrote Tommy. The combination of the pomposity of rock opera with hippie ideals is enough to make strong men shudder.
The fourth problem is Ann-Margret, who plays Tommy’s mother. Not that her performance is bad. Far from it. She’s just too good. She completely dominates the film and entirely overshadows the central character. She unbalances the movie.
With all these problems the movie still has one big thing in its favour. It has Ken Russell. With Ken Russell’s visual genius you can even ignore the terrible music. The images tell the story quite successfully without the music anyway. Russell was attracted to the theme of false religions and false prophets and has a good deal of fun with it. The Cult of Marilyn might have been an obvious idea, but only Ken Russell would have pushed it so far and made it work. There’s a good deal of Christ imagery as well. The combination of Russell’s Catholicism and Pete Townshend’s new age silliness works better than you might expect.
While Ann-Margret does dominate the movie this is really no bad thing. She’s magnificent. Roger Daltrey is adequate enough as Tommy. Oliver Reed is bizarre but entertaining as Tommy’s stepfather.
A good deal of credit must go Russell’s first wife Shirley. Her costume designs are a major part of the film’s outrageousness. The movie was apparently made on a relatively small budget, demonstrating once again that talent and imagination are so much more important than money and technology when it comes to making visually striking movies.
Everything in this movie is real. That really is Roger Daltrey doing the insanely dangerous stunts. That really is Ann-Margret writhing on the carpet covered from head to toe in baked beans. There are no doubles. And no dubbing of singing voices. When Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson sing, you’re hearing Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson sing.
Ken Russell’s commentary track is well worth the time taken to hear it. He has very fond memories of the film. His admiration for Ann-Margret knows no bounds.
Not a complete success, Tommy remains an extraordinary experience.