There are times, and this is one of them, where a summary won’t handle it. I can’t begin to explain Tommy. Ken Russell’s films are pretty fubar in the best of times, but Tommy makes movies like Altered States, The Devils, and Gothic look like Sunday brunch. This is an acid trip with a psilocybin chaser, and is very much a film that I can only imagine would be a far different and perhaps more meaningful experience if watched in a completely altered state. It also helps if you like the music of The Who.
Tommy is a rock opera in every way. It’s based on the concept album by The Who (the rock part) and has no real spoken dialogue (the opera part). It starts out pretty normal, except for the music and singing. Captain Walker (Robert Powell) and his wife Nora (Ann-Margret) spend an idyllic day together before he heads off to fly bombers in World War II. He’s reported lost, and not long after, she has a baby that she names Tommy. Fast forward a couple of years and Nora meets Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed). The two are eventually married and life is good. And then Captain Walker returns. Shocked that his wife is remarried, a fight breaks out and Frank kills Captain Walker by beating him over the head with a lamp. Tommy witnesses all of this. Terrified, Frank and Nora tell the boy that he didn’t see or hear anything and will never talk of it. This immediately turns Tommy into a psychosomatic Helen Keller, unable to see, hear, or speak.
Flash forward a number of years, and any semblance to reality is gone. Tommy is now grown (and played by Who vocalist Roger Daltrey). Nora and Frank try every cure they can think of. This includes a church service where the object of worship is Marilyn Monroe, headed by guitar playing priest Eric Clapton. Another intended cure is an LSD-pushing prostitute called the Acid Queen (Tina Turner). There’s genius in some of these scenes—communion at the Monroe church consists of pills and whiskey, for instance. After Tommy is physically abused by his cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) and sexually abused by his uncle Ernie (Keith Moon), Tommy discovers pinball.
Yes, pinball. Despite his sensory limitations, Tommy becomes a pinball champion, beating the local champ (Elton John) in one of the better sequences. Eventually, a doctor (Jack Nicholson) declares that Tommy’s problems are all in his head. When the mental block is shattered and Tommy is suddenly whole again, he becomes a messianic character promoting a gospel of love, sensory deprivation, and pinball to a host of adoring masses who treat him as the second coming. It’s Jesus Christ Pinball Star.
There are genuinely brilliant sequences in this film. A lot of Ken Russell’s filmography is uneven at best, and Tommy suffers from this. It’s alternately staggering and just weird. The Marilyn Monroe church, for instance, is an incredible sequence that compares the worship of celebrity with religion, complete with Who bassist John Entwistle and guitarist Pete Townshend using their guitars to alternately block people and let them through to communion. This is followed by the odd Acid Queen sequence that features a vibrating Tina Turner making goofy facial expressions and Roger Daltrey being shoved into a syringe-ridden iron maiden and coming out looking like a crucified Christ.
The two most famous (or infamous) sequences come one right after the other. The first concerns the song “Pinball Wizard,” which in this case is sung by Elton John. It’s one of the better set pieces of the film in no small part because of the massive shoes John is wearing. Following this is the scene in which Ann-Margret has a nervous breakdown and ends up swimming in a sea of soap suds, baked beans, and chocolate. That these items spill out of a broken television and are spilling into a perfectly white room only adds to the level of surreality.
So, the big thing here is the imagery, which tends to be the case in general with Ken Russell films. That imagery here is even more heavy-handedly religious than in other Russell films. Tommy is so obviously set up to be a messiah character that it’s impossible to miss; as is often characteristic with Russell, this is applied with the subtlety of a ball peen hammer to the knee. When Tommy reaches his true messianic self, he adopts a religious symbol of a T topped by a pinball, or a cross with a pinball replacing the top piece. He’s frequently pictured in Christ-like poses. Hell, the song lyrics call him a new messiah, so this blatant level of religious hammering isn’t entirely Ken Russell’s fault.
There are problems with Tommy, the main one being just how uneven it is. There are so many places here that are so visually intense that when the film falls into lulls, those lulls seem far duller than they would be otherwise. The other issue is just how damn goofy it is at times. Seriously, Roger Daltrey in full Jesus mode goes hang gliding, and whomever he passes over suddenly becomes a disciple. For every piece of brilliance, like the booze and pills communion there is a corresponding bit of inexplicable stupidity, like Keith Moon with obviously blacked-out teeth grunting over a pair of rubber gloves. And it also takes weird side trips. There’s a whole sequence about a young girl named Sally (Victoria Russell, Ken Russell’s daughter) who is obsessed with Tommy, goes to a revival, gets injured, and marries a guy who looks like Frankenstein’s monster. Dafuq?
It’s so difficult to judge this film. When it’s good, it’s brilliant. When it’s not good, it’s embarrassingly bad. I’ve changed my Letterboxd review multiple times because I can’t determine if I actually like Tommy or just really want to like it. I may never figure that out.
Really, though, the sell here is the music. Perhaps, initially you may watch this for Roger Daltrey’s wide-eyed stare or shirtless hang gliding and Ann-Margret rolling around in baked beans and chocolate sauce. But it’s the music that’s the real reason to spend any time here. And fortunately, the music is good enough to sell it.
Why to watch Tommy: It’s brilliantly, unexplainably bizarre in places.
Why not to watch: It’s incredibly uneven.