The Re-Evaluation Game: Tommy

tommy indexThe one and only time I’d previously watched Ken Russell’s adaptation of The Who’s famous rock opera was back in my late teens, in the mid-nineties when I hadn’t been exposed to much weirdness cinema wise, and it blew me away with its all round insanity. But twenty five years on and all I could remember off the film was Elton John wearing absurdly large boots and of course that infamous baked beans scene, and since that time I’ve seen a great deal of all round strangeness so I thought the film might have less of an impact on me.

Which just goes to show how stupid I can be, as Tommy still stands out as one of the oddest, most out there films ever made, which is a huge compliment I promise. It starts off in a vaguely normal manner at least as we’re shown the romance between Tommy’s mother Nora (Ann Margaret) and his father Captain Walker (Robert Powell) which is rather sweet and affecting, but then war breaks out and that’s the last time this outlandish movie is ever anything approaching normal.

Once Captain Walker is seemingly killed off in the war Nora doesn’t take long to fall for another man, and what a man he is, at least if you like selfish, slightly oafish fellas as holiday camp entertainer Frank (Oliver Reed) sweeps her off her feet by awarding her first prise in a lovely legs competition (and to any readers who are thirty or below, yes, such things really did used to take place). He pretends to care for young Tommy too, but that’s clearly a ruse to get Nora in to bed, which he does all rather quickly and upon returning home together as a new family unit it might seem that happiness might occur, but that would make for a dull film and so Captain Walker returns home from the war horrendously scarred, Frank freaks out and Tommy witnesses him killing his dear old papa.

That’s what leads to Tommy’s deaf, dumb and blind status, as psychologically he responds (understandably) poorly to the murder, and Nora and Frank’s attempts at curing his condition are painfully misguided and include taking to him a church which seems to worship Marilyn Monroe, while Frank shows what a weird old beast he is yet again when he takes Tommy to visit to the “Acid Queen”, a hyped up Tina Turner who injects fuck load of drugs in to him which Tommy at least enjoys, but alas he’s still the same afterwards.

After a while the couple seem to give up on the idea of curing him for a bit and slip in to selfish mode, leaving him first in the company of Paul Nicholas’ abjectly twisted sadomasochist, and then because they seemingly want to win “Worst Parents of the Century” they allow Keith Moon’s Uncle Ernie to look after him, in what’s a horrendous scene and then some as an act of sexual abuse is played for laughs rather distressingly, it might be memorable but it’s the one element that I think Russell misjudged.

After a bout of staring in the mirror there’s a strange shift as Tommy suddenly becomes a pinball wizard, because sexual abuse does that to a man? Who knows, but he’s soon playing against Elton John who covers that famous song while wearing enormous boots. Tommy’s then worshipped by thousands who all adore his mean pinball skills, and that leads to fame and fortune and a sod load of money for Nora and Frank, with the latter using his newfound success to seduce women while Nora has a bit of a breakdown, smashes up a tv and then fantasises about rolling around in baked beans. All of which is oddly hilarious, and it’s these parts which are the most memorable.

Said scene was apparently Russell’s revenge for his early career where he worked in advertising and had to make adverts for beans, it’s an unusual decision without any doubt, but hey given how memorable the scene is as Ann Margaret writhes around in them in an orgasmic manner I’m not going to complain even though I’m not sure what point Russell is making other than “I think she’s going a bit loopy here”. And then just when you thought the film couldn’t get any stranger yet a-bloody-gain, we get Jack Nicholson singing. He’s actually quite good as it goes, but it’s still a big surprise in a film which isn’t exactly short of them.

Nicholson tells Nora what she should have realised all along concerning Tommy’s condition being psychosomatic, and after she shoves him Tommy through a window he’s suddenly doing cart wheels on the beach, dancing on lava and declaring himself free in some hilariously poor green screen footage (well, blue screen, but you know what I mean). Nora’s act of violence allows him to see, hear and chat away to his hearts content, though why it took an act of anger of his mother to “cure” him is another element that isn’t really ever explained, but it does set up the end of the film where Tommy’s worshipped in a disturbingly cult like manner, which of course was never going to end well. The final quarter of the film does sag slightly once Tommy’s rambling away, and visually it’s less crazed than what we’ve seen before, but thankfully the very end delivers.

What the whole film is all about is open to question and it could be suggested that Russell’s just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, but there’s certainly a lot of digs at organised religion, and unorganised religions as well, horrendously shitty parenting and a slight exploration in to the nature of mental illness. But most of the time it just seems like an excuse to go absolutely crazy while setting some fantastic songs to film, and boy, does Russell enjoy doing that and then some.

It’s a film which will make you laugh simply because it’s so ridiculously eccentric and unconventional, there’s so much unique imagery here which you’ll never see elsewhere, and many of the songs are deliberately funny too. As mentioned earlier I’m not a fan of Uncle Ernie’s “Fiddling About”, it takes a bleak subject matter and plays it for laughs, but it’s the only part of the film which really doesn’t work, though it’s a shame the denouement isn’t scripted in a slightly more involving manner.

After all these years it’s a film that’s definitely gone up in my estimation, when younger I just thought it was an extremely bizarre and amusing romp but watching it now it’s fascinating to see how Russell has taken a fairly fun if nothing that special rock opera and turned in to the kind of experience that hasn’t ever been replicated since. It’s from a time when British cinema was a far more imaginative place, and the only downside is that it makes me miss those days when we were interested in creating such gloriously preposterous films.


Alex Finch.
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