This 1975 film based on The Who’s original rock opera album of the same title is being re-released in cinemas as part of the BFI’s film musical season.
Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, Ann-Magaret, Jack Nicholson and Elton John are just a few of the familiar faces you can expect to see in this powerful and extraordinarily bold musical film based on The Who’s 1969 original rock opera album of the same name.
While for the most part it is best to watch Ken Russell’s film without thinking too much about the plot, Tommy follows the story of a young boy who is so traumatised after witnessing the murder of his father that he is left unable to see, speak or hear. As he grows up, he becomes a pinball champion and idolised by all those who have witnessed his achievements. There is certainly nothing conventional about the way in which the story is revealed, with no interaction between characters outside the songs that are used to powerful effect. There are plenty of images throughout the film that stick with you long after the film is finished, not least Ann-Margaret rolling around in a lot of baked beans or Tina Turner (aka Acid Queen) transforming from a hooker to a stainless steel mummy – there is no denying that Ken Russell’s film is boldly creative that matches the dramatic nature of The Who’s music.
But it also has to be said that while Ken Russell’s film on the surface is a bewildering mix of fantasy and exaggeration, underneath it is surprisingly perceptive with regards to showing how quickly someone who is so idolised can be turned and used for commercial gain by others is still relevant today in a world in which we all desire to have more in life whether it is power, money or more materialistic possessions. There is a level of cynicism that is a presence throughout, particularly with regards to organised religion as the scene that takes place in a church that shows the congregation worshipping Marilyn Monroe reveals and in a later scene the disillusion of Tommy’s followers after he tries to teach them something that leads to a riot.
Throughout his journey Tommy (Roger Daltry) meets a wide variety of strange characters – brilliantly portrayed by this unusually put together cast. In particular, Ann-Margaret as Tommy’s Mother Nora and Oliver Reed as Frank are wonderfully expressive and compelling to watch, both fully embracing the characters and providing plenty of energy that both roles require. Elsewhere, Jack Nicholson provides a great (if altogether too brief) appearance as the specialist who Tommy’s parents go to in an attempt to get him to speak and hear again, while Keith Moon is suitably creepy as Uncle Ernie as seen in a particularly uncomfortable scene when Tommy is left with him.
While it feels as though the level of excitement and energy begins to sap away towards the end of the film, it is difficult to escape the feeling of just how undefinable and unique Tommy is both for its time and even now. Ken Russell’s film is wonderfully sharp and creative in a way that fully embraces the music and transforms it into something even more epic. Just sit back and enjoy the ride into this crazy world that Russell has created.
By Emma Clarendon
Tommy is set to be re-released in cinemas across the UK on the 22nd November as part of the BFI Musicals! season.