Monday, February 19, 2007

This one's for RAB

RAB popped in on the comments thread of a recent "Tivo alert" post that I did to recommend Tommy. Well, I just watched it today, and although I probably won't have anything to say that he doesn't already know, here's my thoughts:

Tommy (1975, directed by Ken Russell)

A review in five words: Fucking bizarre, but good music!

Okay, I'll elaborate. For anyone who doesn't know, Tommy is the movie version of The Who's rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who "sure plays a mean pinball". It's pretty weird; my wife, who watched some of it with me but fell asleep for a good portion, said it probably would have been better if we had partaken of "mother nature" first. Actually, I liked it more than she did, but I do have an affinity for weirdness. I'm getting ahead of myself though.

Okay, the titular character is the son of Ann-Margaret (hawt!) and some British guy who dies in the war (WWII, I assume). She ends up getting together with Oliver Reed, playing a guy who runs a holiday camp. After they all come home together, there's a strange bit that I didn't really understand (it seemed like a dream, but I guess it was supposed to be real), where Tommy's father returns, and when he walks in on the two of them (Oliver Reed and Ann-Margaret), Reed whacks him over the head and kills him. Tommy sees it, and the two of them repeatedly scream at him that he didn't see or hear anything. I guess he took that too literally, because he gets struck with psychological blindness, deafness, and muteness (is that a word?).

So, Tommy grows up to be Roger Daltry, and his mom doesn't know what to do with him. She takes him to a Marilyn Monroe-themed church where people apparently go for healing. It's where the movie really starts to get surreal, with nuns that wear Marilyn masks, Eric Clapton preaching with a guitar, and a sacrament that consists of pills and whiskey. There's a statue of Marilyn in her iconic "dress flying up" pose, and sick people are coming and touching it for healing. Ann-Margaret tries to get Tommy to touch it, but he knocks it over and breaks it. Whoops.

(Quick aside here: I assert that Anna Nicole Smith is NOT our generation's Marilyn Monroe. My wife said something of the sort recently, and I disagreed. Sure, people of that generation probably thought of Monroe as a drunken bimbo who couldn't really act, but surely she wasn't that bad. I dunno, maybe future generations will think of Smith in a similar way, but I sure hope not.)

Oliver Reed decides to take a different tack to cure Tommy: get him laid. He takes him to a brothel, where Tina Turner, playing a character called the Acid Queen, dances around and straps him into a freaky hypodermic needle version of an iron maiden. Goddamn. I don't even know how to describe it, it's so crazy. She's singing and dancing the whole time, and the camera is doing trippy things like zooming in and out rapidly. The iron maiden keeps opening with Tommy transformed into things like his father, a Jesus-figure covered with stigmata from the needles, and a skeleton with snakes crawling all over it (in what is not the first bit of phallic imagery, one of them is coming out of the skeleton's crotch).

Well, nothing seems to be curing Tommy, so his mom and step dad just go about their lives, leaving him with a series of abusive babysitters, including Kieth Moon as his sexually abusive Uncle Ernie (I'm going to have to resist the urge to shout "Fiddle about!" at people tomorrow). The ultimate babysitter is the mirror, which Tommy stares into for hours and sees trippy visions. At one point, he wanders off, stumbling through a junkyard, where he finds a pinball machine, and hey, he's pretty good at it! We cut to what appears to be a pinball competition (was there such a thing? I think pinball used to be a big deal, but did they actually have competitions?), where he competes against Elton John, playing a guy on stilts with gigantic clown shoes who plays a keyboard mounted to a pinball machine and sings "Pinball Wizard". Fun!

Well, being awesome at pinball makes Tommy rich and famous, but he doesn't have any clue what's going on, since he can't, you know, see or hear. Ann-Margaret is apparently feeling guilty for taking advantage of him, and she has a song where she keeps trying to change the TV channel so she doesn't have to see him. She keeps trying to change it to commercials for baked beans or chocolates, but it keeps changing back to him, at a televised pinball competition, I guess. She eventually throws a bottle of champagne at the TV, which explodes with foam, covering her in bubbles. Then baked beans pour out and cover her, followed by chocolate. She spends a few minutes writhing around in the mess, splattering it all over the room, then dry humps (if you can call it that when she's covered with goo) a long, phallic pillow. My wife said it seemed like the director was taking a break from the plot to indulge his sexual fantasies. That seems pretty appropriate.

So then Oliver Reed discovers a doctor who can cure Tommy. He's played by Jack Nicholson, who sings (I don't think I mentioned this; there's no spoken dialogue in the movie; everything is sung) that there's nothing physically wrong with him, it's something psychological. Ann-Margaret can't figure out why Tommy won't see or hear her, and she sings to him about how she's upset that he can seem to see the mirror, but not her. Then she throws him into the mirror, and he breaks through, falling into an apparent metaphorical ocean. He's cured! He gets to sing "I'm Free" and run in front of a blue screen-projected ocean!

Everyone's pretty excited that Tommy's cured; it makes front-page news and everything. So then he ends up starting his own religion, with himself as the messiah. I'm honestly not sure if this is supposed to be a satire of organized religion, or a hippy, free-love message. Tommy is pretty welcoming, wanting everybody to come into his house, but Oliver Reed seems to be taking capitalistic advantage, selling holy trinkets and stuff. It's all a fun spoof of Christianity, and probably got people upset back in the 70's. It would probably cause riots if it came out today. Anyway, they sell T-shirts with Tommy in a Christ-like pose, with a halo of pinballs. His big symbol is a cross made of a "T" topped with a pinball. (There's also a weird aside about a young girl who joins the church against her parents' wishes and ends up marrying a kid dressed like Frankenstein's monster. I have no idea what that was all about.)

Tommy ends up taking his followers to a camp similar to the one from the beginning of the movie. He preaches to them from the top of a mountain of giant pinballs, then he has them wear dark glasses, earplugs, and a mouth plug, so they can go through what he went through. Plus, he has them all play pinball. I guess they don't like it though, because they start singing "We're Not Gonna Take It" and smashing the pinball machines with their T-crosses. They also kill Ann-Margaret and Oliver Reed, but Tommy survives. He heads off into nature, and the movie pretty much ends there.

Well, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I tend to like weird stuff. I especially liked the satirical look at religion. I sure didn't understand all of it, but I dug the music. And now I understand the "see me, feel me, touch me, heal me" line from Who songs. Good times. Thanks for the recommendation, RAB, and please let me know if I'm off base about anything.


  1. One quick response entirely unrelated to Tommy: I'll give even a molecule of credence to Anna Nicole being the new Marilyn Monroe if you can show me Anna Nicole's Some Like It Hot. Or Seven Year Itch. Or Bus Stop, or Gentlmen Prefer Blondes... Or anything, really, in which Anna Nicole was not horrifically, painfully awful, and the only excuse for her appearance was neither a showcase for nudity nor for the trainwreck her life became. Suggesting Anna Nicole was the new Marilyn is crazy talk. Crazy talk!

  2. No, I think you pretty much nailed it.

    One of the complaints purists had about the film was the killing of Tommy's father. In the original Tommy album and all other versions (including the Broadway musical) apart from this film, Tommy's father (presumed dead) comes home and kills his wife's lover...and it's Tommy's mom and dad who tell him he didn't witness the murder, traumatizing him into sensory withdrawal. This really doesn't make a lot of sense psychologcally or plotwise if you think about it, and I believe the change Ken Russell made in his version is a big improvement.

    The way I've always understood the movie is that six-year-old Tommy, whose father died in a wartime plane crash before he was born, has a dream in which his father miraculously comes home. Tommy wakes up and rushes into his mother's bedroom to witness his parents' reunion...and bursts in on his mother and her boyfriend in bed together. The adults are embarassed and angry, and start shouting at poor little Tommy "you didn't see that, you didn't hear it, nothing happened"...totally oblivious to what Tommy assumes has happened. Daddy was here, but now he's gone, and they're shouting at me -- mummy and Uncle Frank must have killed daddy!

    From there, everything else in the movie is perfectly logical, even the baked beans. Well, maybe not the baked beans. (And yes, in his autobiography Russell cops to being totally hot for Ann-Margret in this scene, and who can blame him?)

    Not much else to add -- it is fucking bizarre, and the music is fucking great. I'm glad I encouraged you to check it out!

  3. Tom: You've summed up my point of view very well. I'll have to relate it to my wife.

    RAB: Hey, that viewpoint of the "death" of Tommy's father makes sense! Nice! Now, do you have any explanation for the scene where the little girl marries the Frankenstein kid?

  4. One Week Later (sorry, I've been busy):

    Okay...Sally Simpson (played by the director's daughter Victoria Russell, by the way) is the daughter of Reverend Simpson, and rebels against her dad by rejecting the church and going off to follow Tommy. She has an unfortunate incident at Tommy's revival meeting, leaving her with a nasty scar on her pretty face, and becomes disillusioned with Tommy. Still wants to stick it to her uptight dad, though...and does that by marrying a scruffy, unpleasant, repulsive rocker.

    Now, if punk had been invented when Russell made the film, I bet the rock star would have had a mohawk and safety pins. But that scene didn't exist yet, and I think Russell was reaching for something that would convey the idea of a younger generation saying "Up yours, old man!" and looking ugly as a rebellion against the pretty boy excesses of the prog rock era. Metaphorically, that's why we get the Frankenstein look. Now, I hate that goofy lameass Frankenstein scene and it just looks dopey...but I believe Russell wanted to say "punk" there and didn't yet have the image to draw on.

  5. Wow, that actually makes a lot of sense, especially for such a seemingly nonsensical film. Thanks, RAB! You are obviously the man with all the answers when it comes to Tommy.