How It Stands Up

'Tommy': The Road to Excess

It seemed smartly satirical in 1975, but Ken Russell's film version of The Who's rock opera is now just exhausting and more than a little nuts

Tommy can you hear me?

Pauline Kael, the movie critic who helped shape the tastes of so many filmgoers of our generation, claimed never to see a movie more than once. "I just feel I got it the first time," she said.

While there's nothing I enjoy more than occasionally revisiting an old favorite film, Kael had it exactly right when it comes to an encore look at "Tommy," the film version of The Who's rock opera. Repeated viewing of this 1975 musical extravaganza, first released 40 years ago this week, does not do it any favors. "Tommy" was over-the-top then and it's painfully so now.

The movie was based on a 1969, two-record concept album of the same name by The Who. Pete Townshend, the lead guitarist and songwriter for the band, wrote the "rock opera"—a newly minted genre at the time—as a satire on organized religion. The vague plot linking his songs involved the title character, a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a world-famous pinball wizard worshipped by the masses.

The album was greeted with rapturous reviews and robust sales, and the band's subsequent tour to support the album proved popular. The Who even played two sold-out concert versions of "Tommy" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1970, attracting throngs of young, dope-smoking concertgoers who'd never before set foot in the then-stodgy Met in their lives.

I remember first hearing songs from "Tommy"—the big singles were "Pinball Wizard," "I'm Free" and "See Me, Hear Me"—on the local alternative FM radio station when I was in eighth grade. I soon listened to the entire album while babysitting, having discovered a copy in the record collection of my employers for the evening, a couple who clearly were way hipper than my parents. (In this pre-digital downloading and CD-burning era, I was only beginning to make enough money via babysitting to buy my own LPs.)

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By the time the movie came out in 1975, I had just started college. I already knew that I wanted to be a film critic someday, so it was with great eagerness that I went to see "Tommy" when it finally arrived at a local theater. (Back then, movies didn't open as widely and you had to wait weeks and even months after a film's release in New York and Los Angeles for a print to make its way to your little town.)

"Tommy" was directed by Ken Russell (1927–2011), a British filmmaker renowned for his love of excess. He'd made an excellent, relatively restrained adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" back in 1969, but after that he pretty much dived enthusiastically into the lurid and the lavish with every film. As far as he was concerned, too much was never enough.

Never was this tendency more evident than in "Tommy," on which Russell had the luxury of working with a massive budget and major stars. Roger Daltrey, the Who's then-angelic-looking lead singer, played the adult Tommy and Ann-Margret was his mother. She totally committed to the part, happily writhing around in gallons of baked beans in one scene. For this, she nabbed a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

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Also showing up in the movie were Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton, Elton John and Tina Turner, who practically blew out theater sound systems with her rendition of "The Acid Queen." Who band members Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon all appeared in the film, too.

Critics at the time recognized the movie's inherent ridiculousness but, possibly afraid of seeming unhip, nonetheless found it praiseworthy. "It's all fairly excessive and far from subtle, but in this case, good taste would have been wildly inappropriate and a fearful drag," wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote that Russell "gives us one glorious excess after another."

Back when I first saw "Tommy," I remember quite enjoying it even as I recognized that it was like a giant wedding cake in which each layer was a contrasting flavor and the whole was coated with way, way too much frosting. I was still young enough, though, that I reveled in the movie's excess and was impressed with its satirical bent.

Not so much, anymore. Forty years later, I found "Tommy" nearly impossible to view again in its entirety. It's exhausting and more than little nuts, and the satire is way too heavy-handed. Watching Ann-Margret whip her flaming red hair from side to side in a frenzy while frugging and singing "Smash the Mirror," you can't help wondering what the hell she thought she was doing.

My advice? Listen to the album, which still is a pleasure, and then check out a few "Tommy" clips on YouTube. You'll quickly get the idea without losing nearly two hours of your life—for the second time—to this celluloid pile of rococo blather.

   
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