TOMMY / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: KEN RUSSELL / STARRING: ROGER DLATREY, ANN-MARGRET, OLIVER REED / RELEASE DATE: 22ND NOVEMBER
It’s been 45 years since director Ken Russell splashed his vivacious and polarising film adaptation of The Who’s disorderly rock opera onto cinema screens, and it’s just as bonkers as ever. Like most of Russell’s work, Tommy astounds with vibrant visuals, but is bombastic to the point where it often discombobulates. Whether viewed as a masterpiece or maniacal mess, Russell’s furious musical assault on the senses features characters and scenes that are as deliriously colourful as the director’s warped imagination, making most of Tommy massively unforgettable.
Starting in second world war-torn Britain, the setup introduces us to Captain Walker and Nora (Robert Powell and Ann-Margaret); mother and father of young Tommy. The plot then follows Tom through a traumatic childhood to the catalytic moment that turned him into a deaf, dumb and blind kid with supernatural pinball-playing abilities, from which point he is played by curly haired Who frontman Roger Daltrey.
Tommy boots viewers through hallucinogenic drug whirls, rock n’ roll churches, dank holiday camps and the home of predatory relatives, with the juddering drift of a defective brainwash video. Russell utilises the story’s dark themes to craft distorted imagery, while the surrealist visuals, costumes and sets are gaudily designed to feel like clips from a drugged clown’s nightmare. Supporting characters and cameos colour the backdrop and (attempt to) sing The Who tunes. The better of these are Tina Turner’s drug pushing “Acid Queen,” complete with syringe-ridden iron maiden, and Elton John’s big-booted “Pinball Wizard.”
While some songs strike, most are ugly, middling and augment a latter half sluggishness, punctuated with angry, dynamic moments. Oliver Reed, as Tommy’s stepfather Frank, whines drunk and tone deaf while Keith Moon’s terrifying Uncle Ernie burps “fiddling about” lyrics interspersed by torture scenes, as Tommy is toyed with by evil cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas). An Oscar-nominated Ann-Margret stuns as Tommy’s troubled mother, with her cracked champagne detonation into TV / baked beans / soap suds explosion being one of the film’s highlights.
Despite classic, controversial scenes being cemented in pop culture, Tommy, on the whole, is a brash whack of chaotic clutter - a vivacious mess that teeters on incoherence before slumping into a claggy, monotonous finale, during which Tommy becomes a “messiah” and (in denim) ascends a mountain like some kind of primal Michael Bolton. The relentless visuals and gaudy design go some way to compensating for the film’s nonsensical ramblings, yet Tommy remains an exhilarating brain rake that will leave some dazzled, others revolted and a select few, both, which is arguably better than feeling nothing at all.