May 2, 2005 -- A local theater had one of those midnight cult film showings the other night, “Tommy,” the 1975 avant-garde rock opera starring The Who, Elton John, Tina Turner and Ann-Margaret. I had not seen it before, but had heard of it, of course.
The film reminded me a lot of another rock opus, “The Wall,” featuring the music of Pink Floyd. Like “The Wall,” “Tommy” has a story which, in its core, is very dark, fueled by painful memories of child abuse, possibly sexual abuse. Peter Townshend, the lead guitarist of The Who, is the film's musical director, and he wrote much of the music used in the film. Townshend has indicated in some of his writings that he was abused as a child. Townshend once wrote, “The greatest terror for an adult who remembers sexual abuse is the thought that other children might suffer as they did. This terror echoes for me. In my writing in the past -- especially Tommy -- I have created unusually unmerciful worlds for any infant characters. I am often disturbed by what I see on the page when I write -- never more so than when I draw on my own childhood.”
The story of Tommy certainly has a number of dark references to child abuse. One of the more terrifying scenes has Tommy as a young child (played by Barry Winch) left to the care of a very bizarre relative, Uncle Ernie (played by the late drummer for The Who, Keith Moon). Moon creates a terrifying character who seems mad and quite possibly dangerous. The child Tommy is also left in the care another strange relative, cousin Kevin (played by actor-singer Paul Nicholas). Tommy also witnesses terrible events in his childhood that cause him to become psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind. In “The Wall” there are a number of dark references and disturbing images of a mental breakdown which can be interpreted in much the same general way as the images in “Tommy.” In fact, I believe it is a truism that the majority of exceptional artistic inspirations are born of pain, suffering and tragedy, rather than happiness.
When Tommy grows up (now played by lead singer of The Who, Roger Daltrey) he becomes a pinball champion and messianic leader of a religious cult, operated by his greedy parents, his mother, Nora Walker Hobbs (Ann-Margret of “Grumpy Old Men”) and stepfather, Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed of “Gladiator”). The story slowly builds to a climax that is both tragic and triumphant. Looking back on the story decades later, I wonder if Townshend would write the ending differently today. Maybe the real ending to Townshend's story is more tragic than he would like to admit, even now. Townshend still cannot escape from his past, as evidenced by his recent run-in with the law.
The story can be seen as a metaphor, perhaps for Townshend's relationship with his own parents both before and after he became one of the biggest rock stars in history. Did Townshend's parents ignore him until he became incredibly wealthy? Were there conflicts between Townshend and his family over his wealth? The story of Tommy seems to lend itself to that interpretation. At its heart, the story of Tommy is tragic. It is the tale of a childhood corrupted and lost. Even if child abuse is the source for great musical inspiration, it is still a tragedy.
In addition to solid performances by Ann-Margaret and Oliver Reed as Tommy's parents, Elton John gives a stirring rendition of one of the best songs in the rock opera, “Pinball Wizard.” Tina Turner gives a show-stopping performance of “Acid Queen” and Daltrey performs his classic rendition of “See Me, Feel Me” (which he also performed at Woodstock). In operatic fashion, the film's dialogue is entirely sung to music, including Jack Nicholson's song (he plays a psychiatrist treating Tommy). Ann-Margaret, an experienced song-and-dance performer, does an excellent job with her musical numbers. She was starring in big Hollywood musicals in the early 1960s.
The film is filled with startling imagery, inventive photography and strange sets. “Tommy” director Ken Russell (“Altered States”) is well-known for his creative use of visual imagery. In one scene Tommy is placed in a kind of iron maiden device, covered with syringes which are used to inject him with drugs. In another scene, a battle is fought on a hillside covered with large spheres that look like big pinballs. A symbol used by Tommy-worshipers is a letter “T” with a ball on the top, forming a crucifix shape. In another scene, Tommy is shown lying on top of this symbol in a Christ-like position, as if affixed to a cross. World War II imagery is also used in the film in scenes of Tommy's biological father, Captain Walker (Robert Powell), an RAF bomber pilot. In another scene, Tommy's mother is shown stuffing pinballs into shell casings in a World War II munitions factory.
There are some good songs in the film, but these were never my favorite songs by The Who. For instance, I think “Behind Blue Eyes” would have fit well into the film. It is as haunting a song about inner pain as any ever written by The Who. In addition to the music written by The Who musicians, John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Peter Townshend, there is also a song by blues legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (“Eyesight to the Blind”). “Tommy” is decidedly a mixed bag. There are a few very good musical numbers surrounded by musical filler material. The story works well enough, but it isn't terribly compelling. The final battle is somewhat abrupt and lacks any kind of convincing narrative underpinning. Still, this film rates a B as an extravagant musical curiosity, or Baby Boomer time capsule, if nothing else.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.