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Retro Review: Tommy

Molly Leeming reviews this 1975 cult classic and discusses its likeability and its absurdity.

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Image Credit: Hemdale

Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret Olsson, Oliver Reed
Running time : 1hr 51mins
Rating : 15

Tommy, Ken Russell’s 1975 film version of The Who’s 1969 rock opera, has recently been re-released in cinemas, and it remains as much of a bizarre trip as ever. Tommy tracks the turbulent life of its protagonist, a boy who becomes psychosomatically deaf, mute and blind. We see his journey from his traumatic childhood, to becoming a famed ‘pinball wizard’, to eventually becoming a messianic figure at the centre of a huge cult. The oddness of this film really can’t be understated; it is a bombastic, chaotic jumble that truly lives up to the extravagant self-indulgence implied by the term ‘rock opera’, and yet it still has an undeniable charm.

There is no mistaking Tommy for anything but a rock musical. Its rock origins are placed front and centre, with the film soundtrack version of the original concept album (adapted for the screen by The Who’s Pete Townshend) dominating and driving proceedings. There is no spoken dialogue in Tommy, and no silence. When the characters aren’t singing the film is being propelled along by the electric organ and guitar score. The music is relentless and inescapable. I could have done without certain numbers, for example ‘Sally Simpson’, the confusing and seemingly completely unnecessary foray into the life of a young fan of Tommy’s, who goes to a mass meeting in the hope of seeing him and gets injured. Nevertheless, by and large the music is excellent, with the numbers that do work more than making up for the few that don’t.

Ken Russell also makes full use of an impressive host of iconic 70s music figures. The classic ‘Pinball Wizard’, as very charismatically performed by Elton John wearing improbably enormous boots is an enormously fun romp. Equally memorable is ‘Acid Queen’ which in the hands of Tina Turner becomes a psychedelic trip presided over by a gloriously unhinged witch-diva. The non-musician actors more than hold their own against their rock-star counterparts as well. Oliver Reed does a brilliant job as Tommy’s slimily sinister stepfather, particularly notably in the song ‘Bernie’s Summer Camp’, in which he queasily sings about Tommy’s mother’s ‘silken thigh’ over a frenetically chirpy electronic organ led track.

Tommy is an unabashedly hallucinogenic and often absurd film. It is filled with flamboyant dream sequences, such as the scene in which Tommy’s mother flails around in a mix of baked beans, soap suds and melted chocolate being spewed from a television set in an entertaining if not subtle representation of the warping effect of consumer culture. The film’s dreamy detachment from any sense of realism is for me what gives it its considerable appeal, drawing you into its mad, excessive world with minimal concern for such trivial matters as reality. However, a practical drawback to this loose grasp on reality is that I was at times unsure of what was supposed to be an event that actually occurred and what was a metaphorical dream sequence. I won’t spoil the film by revealing what causes Tommy’s sensory lockdown and imprisonment in his own body, but safe to say it was unlikely, and frankly silly enough that I initially assumed that it was just another outlandish dream.

It is not easy to apply any sort of plot structure to Tommy. It barrels around in tune with its own bizarre logic, in true operatic form, from one emotional extreme to another without making much of an attempt to string these moments together into a coherent or convincing plot. Therefore the final scene, which involves Tommy climbing a mountain while triumphantly singing the euphoric ‘Listening to You’, while as exhilarating as it was no doubt intended to be, feels like a rather inexplicable turn of events, both in terms of plot and tone. However, Tommy is not a film that pretends to have much concern with either logic or reality. You either take it on its own bizarre terms and get swept along in its wake, or you don’t, and are left baffled and somewhat irritated.

This is where Tommy truly earns its status as a cult film: it demands a strong emotional response of one kind or another and as a result is completely polarising. I saw it in a cinema full of Tommy devotees; one audience member I spoke to proudly told me that he had seen it 50 times in a year. On the other hand, I can feasibly see many people finding it unbearably on-the-nose, campy and shambolic. While I fully acknowledge that all three of these things are at least somewhat true of Tommy, I also found that this was part of what made it so enjoyable and entertaining. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a Tommy disciple like many of my fellow audience members: it is an uneven film, and very much a product of its time. This is mostly in its favour in its authentic capturing of the spirit of 70s rock grandiosity, but also produces some alarmingly outdated moments, such as the apparent conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Nevertheless, 44 years on, Tommy remains a bonkers, bewildering, often frustrating but ultimately, for me at least, irresistibly likeable film.

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