Mixed Reviews Part 1: “Tommy”

I’ve wanted to pare down my DVD collection for a while. Though it was never actually said, DVDs were status symbols among people I knew and myself. Having an extensive collection with the right mix of classic, cult and obscure movies proved you had good taste. Then I moved around a few times and the DVDs became more of a nuisance. In the last five years, I’ve gone from having a small dresser full of DVDs to two shelves full. I was preparing to move again a couple of months ago, so it seemed necessary to cut down the collection even further. The move didn’t happen, but my DVDs still could use a good clearing out.

Tommy Movie Poster

Another motivation for finally going through my movies was my recent viewing of The Great Gatsby, which as far as I know, received mixed reviews. Despite the “mixed” part of the term, “mixed reviews” has a bad connotation, and I realized then that while I often take the negative side when it comes to mixed movie opinions, a good portion of the movies I own either received mixed reviews or are critically reviled. Since I was going to watch all my DVDs again anyway to help me sort them, I decided to write reviews of the mixed/bad ones.  The ones I still like will be defended, and the ones that aren’t as good as I remember will go into the pile to take to the used bookstore. This won’t be every new post for now on; just when I can’t think of anything better.

The first DVD on the chopping block is Tommy. This adaptation of The Who’s concept album was written and directed by Ken Russell and released in 1975. I think the critical derision largely comes from Who fans who hold the album sacred and resent the hallucinatory big-screen incarnation. That’s perfectly understandable. It’s a different situation when one isn’t familiar with the original work. For example, I don’t hold The Great Gatsby novel sacred. However, I was familiar enough with the story to have a pre-existing interpretation of it; specifically, that Daisy never loved Gatsby. (My view could be purely the product of teen angst, which is what happens when you read things in high school, but I can’t help that.) Therefore, watching The Great Gatsby movie would have been different if I didn’t know anything about the story beforehand. In the same way, I think the reason I hold a more favorable opinion of Tommy than most is because I had never heard the entire album before watching the movie.

No one can argue that basic story isn’t ridiculous. A boy is traumatized into becoming deaf, dumb and blind. He’s abused throughout his life. That’s not the ridiculous part. I learned in a college psychology class there was a case of a British solider whose post-traumatic stress disorder caused him to become deaf, dumb and blind. I would have raised my hand and said, “Hey, it’s Tommy!” if it hadn’t been during a lecture.

Here’s the rest of the story, though: Tommy discovers that he’s a genius pinball player and somehow becomes a millionaire because of it. Then he’s miraculously cured of his condition and uses the experience to become a messiah figure that preaches using sensory deprivation and pinball as the keys to spiritual fulfillment.

Ken Russell evidently decided that the music needed some over-the-top visuals and hammy acting to go with its inherent weirdness. Here are some sentences I had fun writing:

  1. Eric Clapton plays a preacher at a church that worships Marilyn Monroe and substitutes scotch and pills for bread and wine in their version of Communion.
  2. Pete Townshend is some kind of deacon at the same church, where he waves around a six-pointed star featuring Marilyn’s face while screaming in the parishioners’ faces.
  3. Tina Turner plays a prostitute called the Acid Queen who turns into a psychedelic iron maiden with the help of several syringes.
  4. Tommy’s mother (Ann-Margaret) goes insane watching TV commercials until the next thing you know, she’s rolling around in chocolate, soap suds and baked beans.
Iron Maiden
The iron maiden. Or for Roald Dahl fans, the choky.

There’s more great stuff in there too, but this post is long enough as is. The funny thing is that it actually could have been weirder: the role of the female prostitute was originally envisioned for David Bowie. At one point, I think in the 1980s, Ken Russell wanted to direct a movie adaptation of Evita. I’m glad it never came to fruition, but I do like to imagine what it would have been like. My guess is that David Bowie would have played Evita and instead of waltzing with Che, they’d have a wrestling match involving Argentine beef.

The only real problem I have with the movie is Uncle Ernie. Tommy covers some heavy topics; namely, physical and sexual abuse. They’re handled well for the most part. The scene with Acid Queen is appropriately nightmarish. The scene with the sadistic Cousin Kevin isn’t as terrifying, but there’s still a minor-key creepiness to it. Yet I can’t overlook the scene where Uncle Ernie molests Tommy. Thankfully, it’s not explicit, but it is played as comedy. This is probably to balance out the unavoidable darkness of the subject matter. I also have a feeling Keith Moon was dying to play a role that allowed him to be his “Moon the Loon” self on camera but didn’t require more than talk-singing. The result, however, just isn’t funny, especially since it comes from a song written by a man who himself was sexually abused as a child. Even worse, Uncle Ernie is shown reading a newspaper called “Gay Times”, which seems to imply that gay men are rapists by nature. Hilarious.

At least with this last viewing, I finally saw the cracks in the movie’s candy-colored exterior. By this I mean that while the stylization makes an excellent effort at burying the emotional aspects of the story, there still are glimmers of an underlying sadness. A lot of that’s due to the music, but not all of it. For example, Ann-Margaret spends most of her screen time chewing the scenery, but there’s a genuine quality to her character’s guilt over her son’s condition, especially in the scenes where he’s a child. Another newly appreciated element was the way that after each traumatic experience, Tommy saw (presumably in his mind’s eye) a different version of himself when he stared into the mirror. Each new Tommy was the color of the room where the experience took place, until all of the Tommys combine to make a single one who eventually takes over the role of spiritual guide once played by Tommy’s dead father. That’s pretty profound for a detail too minor to even show up in the lyrics.

The third thing that changed for me was the second half of the movie, where Tommy’s condition is cured through a psychological breakthrough and he becomes a messiah figure. I used to find it boring because while it certainly has a good deal of absurdity, it’s less manic. Some of that’s because it mostly takes place outdoors as opposed to the gaudy interiors of the earlier scenes. Most of it, though, is in Roger Daltrey’s earnestness. In the Who documentary The Amazing Journey, Pete Townshend says that despite all the tension between them, Daltrey was Tommy. I like that Daltrey played the part with a complete lack of cynicism. Tommy has a faith in humanity that allows him to forgive his abusers, try to save the world as he was saved, and to be heartbroken when his followers ultimately turn on him. By the end of the movie, the excess of the first part has mostly been stripped away and we’re left with a message about self-salvation. Delivered in a stupid way, but it’s still there.

That’s why I don’t know what to do with this DVD. On one hand, it’s so crazy you want to show it to other people simply to prove it exists. On the other, the Uncle Ernie scene requires some forewarning, which is awkward. There is some cringe-worthy singing from Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson, but there are amazing performances not only from The Who, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner, but also Paul Nicholas and Elton John. (In fact, I prefer Elton John’s version of “Pinball Wizard” to the original. He sure plays a mean piano.) I was all set to send Tommy to the reject pile simply for Uncle Ernie, after being reminded of what I liked about the movie in the first place, as well as seeing new and more redeeming things in it; I think I’ll keep it. Maybe next time I’ll change my mind.

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