Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tommy (1975)

Ken Russell's 1975 film version of the Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy is a study in excess, providing eye-popping visuals and grotesque tableaux to accompany the music. To label Russell's style of filmmaking "over the top" is putting it mildly. While some deride his work as vulgar and blasphemous, I believe Russell is one of cinema's true visionaries.

Roger Daltrey plays the title character, and having sung the role hundreds of times on stage, acquits himself admirably. Unfortunately, he would not fare as well with his future film roles.

Ann-Margaret plays his mother, and received an Academy Award nomination for her work. She emotes for the ages as she gets covered in baked beans, chocolate sauce, and soap bubbles while riding a massive phallic pillow. That's worth an Oscar nom any time...

Also in the cast are Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Jack Nicholson as the Doctor, and best of all, my main man Oliver Reed in full gargoyle mode as Frank, Tommy's stepfather.

When I first s
aw this movie as a 13 year old with a Who fixation, I hated Ollie for not being able to carry a tune in a bucket. Seeing it again 30 years later, I realized that he's the best thing in it, whether he's leering at Ann-Margaret, blowing cigar smoke in Jack Nicholson's face, or stomping on "Sally Simpson's" fingers.

We first meet Frank when Tommy and his mother go to a summer holiday camp, where Frank is a "greencoat." Ollie does some great physical comedy as he hosts a "lovely legs" competition ("Have you ever seen a lovelier pair?" he asks), won by Tommy's mum, of course. Soon, Frank's sleeping with her, and when Tommy's father, presumed dead, unexpectedly returns home, Frank caves in Daddy's skull, killing him for real. Tommy witnesses the crime, and is struck deaf, dumb, and blind by the trauma.

Reed's part got bigger and bigger as Keith Moon's got smaller and smaller, probably due to Ken Russell's familiarity with Oliver, and the fact that he could drink himself into stupor at night and show up on time and line-perfect in the morning, while Moonie remained stuporous. Nonetheless, Reed and Moon became bosom buddies, their carousing continuing after both relocated to Beverly Hills. I recently saw the blazer Reed sported in the holiday camp sequence on Ebay going for $2400 US. If I'd had the cash to spare, it would have been mine...

Tommy is not a total triumph: Townshend's score is heavy on the synthesizers and light on guitar crunch; the story is a bit nonsensical; and some elements of
the film now seem dated in the extreme. However, Ken Russell's audacious direction is never dull, and as I mentioned, Oliver Reed is totally genius in it. No Pavarotti for sure, but unmistakably, undeniably Ollie.

Available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Video. Get it online at The Oliver Reed Store.

A shorter version of this review was first published at, where you can read hundreds more of my write-ups, mostly film-related, as well as my reviews of books, local Austin places, various types of junk food, and some damn fine ales.

No comments:

Post a Comment