Saturday, May 1, 2010


"Tommy" (Ken Russell, 1975) There have been bad rock and roll movies—really bad ones. But the genre seemed to hit its peak during the glitzy, gay disco-days of the 1970's. "The kids"—and Robert Stigwood—were making hits (and lots of money) from movies like "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." But even more, the companies putting out the soundtracks filled with movie-hits were making a wind-fall. There was a subsequent crush of rock-movies with double-album soundtracks hitting theaters and stores and amidst that groundswell were such gems as the Barbra Streisand "A Star is Born," "Can't Stop the Music," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"—starring The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton—but ahead of the pack was this bloated and excessive refutation of all things revolutionary in rock n' roll—"Tommy."

Pete Townsend and The Who's "rock-opera" (though it doesn't follow strict form requirements) barely held together as an album, but it was a fine conceit. And where there's conceit, there is Hollywood.

An excessive film,
during an excessive time in Hollywood. This scattered and episodic movie actually has more in common with the episodic "Broadway Melody" revue films of the 30's and 40's—guest-stars are trotted out (Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson) for one song, then they are shipped off, never to be seen again.

I don't remember much of "
Tommy" except the excesses (purging does that), but I do remember the frequent use by director Russell of the distorted close-up, how the songs didn't flow into each other but kinda...stopped.

Then started again. Flow was something missing from "Tommy," and replaced by excess. Elton John was the biggest thing in music at the time, but he's just a blip in the film, perched atop stilt-like Doc Martens. Jack Nicholson (substituting for a probably-more-appropriate Christopher Lee) is in B-movie auto-pilot and CANNOT sing. Ann-Margret was inconceivably nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the filmprobably for bravery, Tina Turner was deliriously ferocious (and fidgety) as "The Acid Queen," and the heretical "Eyesight for the Blind" sequence that took place in The Church of Marilyn Monroe. Tasteless, crass, and jaw-droppingly audacious, it is also a very neat commentary on the idolatry of celebrity—a far better one than the movie itself...or Townsend's original...was trying to be. Except for that sequence, the film is a waste of time. An extremely commercial indictment of things commercial.

I suppose it could be due a re-make.

Let's forget it (Better, still).

The "Eyesight for the Blind" sequence (the song by "Sonny Boy Williamson II", performed by The Who, Eric Clapton—quite stoned—and Arthur Brown). Like the movie, it is padded to just go on soooo long and director Ken Russell (and editor Stuart Baird) do what they can to keep things semi-lively. Best thing about the movie.


Simon said...

Ha. Tommy, you misbegotten bastard.

Yojimbo_5 said...

My, that video is large, isn't it? May have to have a YouTube reduction.

I should interject that this review, more than others, makes use of our constant, iritating habit of using invisible links where you can learn "More of the Story"--or just see examples of things I glossed over in the review.

You'll find them all over in most reviews on the site.

Why, it could even promote REPEAT viewing!

Mike Lippert said...

You have to admit that, there are some brilliant images in Tommy that are quite unfortegttable, the Acid Queen in particular. But you are right, on a whole, this film doesn't work and I think it's for two reasons: 1) the story spirals way out of control in the third and loses all interest and 2) The Who can't write rock opera. They've always been sort of a poor man's cross between The Beatles, The Stones and Pink Floyd but never really reach that epic, makes you want to move and reconsider your life as you know it kind of depths that those bands could at their best. They just made catchy, rocky pop songs and that's what they were best at, which is obviously shown in Townsends inability to build a coherent story through music and to write songs cinematically that, as you say, build into each other. Their other concept album (donno how to spell the name of it) was better and had a better movie but still, The Wall this was not. On that note, I'm still waiting for a movie version of Zappa's Joe's Garage. Fat chance in 2010 eh?

Yojimbo_5 said...

On the other hand, they do write great music to do forensics by...