As musicals go The Who’s Tommy is one that is somewhat special for me as it is the first professional musical I saw live when it was staged in London in the mid to late 1990s (featuring Kim Wilde as Mrs Walker aka Nora in the film).
While I enjoyed that version of course the most well known incarnation of Tommy is Ken Russell’s star studded 1975 movie version and it’s that one which the BFI were screening as part of their ‘Musicals!’ season in November and December 2019 so I jumped at the chance to see it on a big screen (and I hoped with a big sound system) for the first time.
Before the film even started the mood was nicely set with a selection of The Who’s music being playing as we headed into the NFT2, which along with the curator’s notes available on the door, highlight just how well done screenings like this are (no adverts and minimal trailers also help).
Onto the film itself and, as it began with a bright primary coloured title card and very 70s synthesiser music, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the last film I watched at the BFI, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and there are a few other interesting comparisons between the two as well but really they aren’t what struck most.
From the start Russell’s adaptation of The Who’s 1969 concept album is an overwhelming sensory experience, no doubt intentionally both because that’s the sort of thing he does and because it highlights the total sensory deprivation of the titular lead character (Barry Winch and later The Who’s own Roger Daltrey).
Once we’re through the scene setting opening montage, which goes on a lot longer than I remembered just adding to the sense of excess, things do settle down comparatively.
By way of a vague summary the story begins in World War Two as Ann-Margret’s Nora and Robert Powell’s Captain Walker have a whirlwind romance before he is apparently killed in action leaving her with a baby born on VE Day.
From there she remarries Frank (Oliver Reed) only for Captain Walker to reappear but Frank kills him in front of Tommy who, from then on, is rendered ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ (to use the parlance of the film).
From this rather troubled start things only get worse as attempts are made to cure Tommy that are mostly various forms of child abuse before it turns out his ailments mean he can now ‘play a mean pinball’ which somehow garners him a superstar like following.
In most cases such detail would feel like spoilers but here it doesn’t seem that is such an issue and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that maybe the narrative really is secondary to the experience of the film and, in parts, what it’s trying to say.
As I’ve already said the film is both visually and sonically overwhelming as it exists in not just the usual heightened world of musicals but with something else added to it.
In part this feels like it is a kind of living Carry On film with Oliver Reed and Keith Moon (as the sleazy, child molesting Uncle Ernie) feeling like characters from the film series without the filters of cosy vintage comedy to make them acceptable, giving the whole thing even more of a salacious edge than it would have from just the just the basic plot.
In other places this sees a total breakdown of any kind of naturalism as the film switches from its version of reality to a kind of dream state without any kind of signifier.
This is highlighted by arguably the film’s most famous scene, around the song Champagne, that sees Ann-Margret smash her TV only to get flooded by bubbles, baked beans and then chocolate in genuinely spectacular fashion with an oddly erotic climax to it all just to take it that step beyond once more.
As well as the overwhelming side there is a thread throughout the film that feels like Russell is trying to say something at least vaguely profound, with mixed results.
From an early scene where Nora takes Tommy to a church deifying Marilyn Monroe (featuring Eric Clapton as its priest) to the film’s climax that essentially sees Tommy founding a new religion which goes all a bit wrong, it’s clear he’s commenting on the cult of celebrity but it doesn’t quite coalesce completely into a solid outlook but this may be the point as it leaves the viewer asking questions rather than with solid answers.
Like the narrative though I’m not sure that matters as much as it might due to the aforementioned overwhelming feel of the whole.
This might all make it sound like a mess but far from it, Tommy very much is a singular piece and features more than its share of highlights both in terms of performances and sequences.
Chief amongst these is Ann-Margret who, I’ll admit, I hadn’t appreciated in the past but she manages, through all the surrounding excess, to deliver a performance that is certainly the most complete character in the film as she goes through love, various forms of grief, and a kind of ultimate jubilation in a way that is entirely convincing while being delivered with a power and passion to match what Russell has constantly going on around her.
Meanwhile the standout sequences, that almost feel like proto-music videos come with Tina Turner’s Acid Queen and Elton John’s Pinball Wizard.
In very different ways these are both stunning conceptual set pieces that take the overarching style of the film and perfectly marry it with both the narrative and the songs as well as the individual performances to create images that live long in the memory (Acid Queen being particularly traumatising both to the characters involved and the audience).
Ultimately then Tommy is a film that, to quote This Is Spinal Tap, turns everything up to 11 and in that (and judging by the response from the audience at this screening) can be problematic in several ways.
With that though it is such a bludgeoning tour de force that if you allow yourself to go along for the ride it is genuinely tremendous and unlike anything else I’ve seen on film.
In many ways I think it could only have been made at the time it was and I’m not sure there would be a better way to encapsulate Tommy the concept album in film without it becoming rather too pedestrian which would be a disservice to Pete Townshend’s original idea and music.