Director: Ken Russell
Writers: Pete Townshend and Ken Russell
Stars: Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Robert Daltrey, Tina Turner, Everyone & Their Mother
Tommy is a satire on organized religion.
The rock opera begins with a rising sun in the wild where Tommy’s parents have a romantic day and he is conceived. His father, a British bomber pilot then gets shot down on a mission over Europe during World War II. Tommy’s mother, Nora Walker (Ann-Margret), raises him alone until one summer holiday where she meets Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed). He moves in with them and then Tommy witnesses a traumatic event–after which he is deaf, blind and mute.
Years later, Tommy (Roger Daltrey) is neglected by his mother & step-father, abused by his cousin, and taken advantage of by his uncle. His mother takes him to church in search of a miracle; his step-father pays for him to have sex in the hope the excitement will cure him to no avail. But then his step-father discovers Tommy has a talent, and they move to exploit it. As the fortunes of the family rise his mother still looks for a cure. She eventually takes him to a psychiatrist that says Tommy’s condition is all in his head. At home she tries to get a rise out of Tommy and provoke him. She fails. Frustrated she pushes him through a mirror and he falls into the pool. When he surfaces Tommy can see, hear and speak again.
After his awakening Tommy wants to help as many people as possible. But as always, his parents have only their interests in mind. Eventually all the good he accomplishes and the well-being he is trying to spread is corrupted. He is laid low and runs-away to save his life and find himself. At the end we are back where we started–in the same wilderness at a new sunrise.
So, where is the satire? The church where Tommy is taken by his mother is no Our Lady of Lourdes. The blind, sick and maimed are not brought before a statue of the Virgin Mary in order to touch it and be cured, but a statue of Marilyn Monroe in her famous pose with her skirt blowing up. After his baptism and awakening how does Tommy help others? He creates a church with himself as a messiah; the symbol is a modified cross with a pin-ball as the head. As followers flock to him, he and his family sell souvenirs, charge admission, and take advantage of the desperate.
Tommy is definitely a product of its time and a surreal experience. The direction is solid, and the acting surprisingly good–particularly the female characters. Ann-Margret gives her all. Her temptation scene of Tommy alone is worth the price of admission. That compliment can also be paid to Tina Turner’s musical performance as the Acid Queen. The music is also the movie’s greatest strength. Tina Tuner’s and Elton John’s renditions of “Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard”, respectively, are far superior to The Who’s. The costume design was also inspired. Elton’s outfit as the pinball champion gives the impression you are two feet tall and looking directly up at him from the bottom of his boots. Ann-Margret’s costumes get increasingly decadent as the movie goes on, finally doing a 180 to a Chairman Mao look after Tommy’s awakening.
Tommy isn’t for everyone and feels dated. But as an example of 70s craziness and music, it’s worth a try. I’m not sure if I’ll watch it again, but I am glad that I did.
Grade = B-