I find it difficult to reconcile this film with a kind and loving God. My mistake, really; I mean, I watched it sober and drug-free.
When I was in high school, I was part of a triumvirate in which each of us had a clear favorite in rock music. For me, it was the Beatles, for another Led Zeppelin, and for the third, The Who. I credit the third, Samantha, for “giving” me The Who, along with endless hours of enjoyment. This enjoyment included Tommy, their “rock opera,” though even then it was spotty entertainment. The songs I liked best — “1921,” “Sally Simpson,” “Pinball Wizard” — I liked very much and still do, but most of the rest depended a great deal on the operatic “concept,” which was much more persuasive in the abstract. Ken Russell has shown that adding visuals to the music does nothing to improve its eloquence.
Perhaps it isn’t a fair test. The Ken Russell visual is a surreal, flamboyant thing. In one scene late in the film, Ann-Margaret, who plays Tommy’s mother, rolls around on the floor while first a thick column of soap suds then a mighty stream of liquid chocolate flows out of a television set and washes over her. I suppose it’s all a metaphor for the selfishness and greed that have sullied her soul, but it goes on forever, and anyway, the last time she was truly clean was during the Overture. It is, in a word, excessive, a condition that afflicts the entire film.
Still, given the source material, you’d think that there’d be some good music. In fact, there’s surprisingly little. Russell made the decision to have his actors sing and that took care of that. Far and away the best few minutes of the film are during “Pinball Wizard,” when, in a casting masterstroke, Elton John sings the song wearing mile-high boots and over-size glasses. Mr. Russell, meet Mr. John. The two of you were made for each other.
For those who don’t know, Tommy relates the fall and rise of a young deaf, dumb, and blind boy who bedevils his parents until he brings them fame and fortune as a pinball champion. Shortly thereafter, he is miraculously cured, becoming a sort of guru to thousands; his teaching method involves eye-shades, ear-plugs, and “you know where to put the cork,” as well as endless Pinball machines. Tommy, however, wasn’t born lacking his senses. He loses them one night when he goes into shock after witnessing his step-father kill his biological father, a soldier everyone thought had died in the war. The story is absurd, of course, but it has a certain pathos because Tommy, unlike his family, is a genuinely decent fellow.
In addition to Elton John, the movie features Eric Clapton as a preacher whose cult worships Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen,” a prostitute who tries to free Tommy with an iron maiden that injects LSD, and Jack Nicholson, who plays the doctor who diagnoses Tommy’s affliction as psychosomatic but would rather be jumping his mom. Oh, and Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, a slimy pedophile who molests Tommy.
Sound like your kind of movie? Go for it, if it does. In outline, the story actually works. It’s the phantasmagoria surrounding it that I didn’t care for.