Where do you begin when writing about a musical that sets the bar so high that no one has managed to reach it? It starts with the birth of a young wartime baby, whose father is thought to have perished in a RAF bombing mission over Germany. When the lad is six his mother meets Frank at a holiday camp, Uncle Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed) soon moves in with Nora Walker (Ann-Margret). One night while Frank and Nora are making love the boys father returns and witnesses the love making, the young boy witnesses the fight that follows, which ends with Captain Walker (Robert Powell) being killed. His mother and stepfather tell the boy "you didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no-one". From that day on young Tommy Walker (Roger Daltrey) hears nothing, see’s nothing and says nothing, in fact he’s now psychologically blind, deaf and dumb. Yes you’re right this is Ken Russell’s truly inspired adaptation of Pete Townsend’s 1969 rock opera Tommy (1975).
Both Nora and Frank attempt, via various doctors, to cure the boy of his malaise but without any success. Moving on ten years and the pair still believe that the boy can be cured, this time by taking him to a gathering of the faithful in a church that worships the cult of Marilyn Monroe. To the music of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Eyesight to the Blind a cleansing is taking place where a sacrament of drugs and alcohol is being served under the control of a preacher, who looks remarkable like Eric Clapton and a priest who you’d swear was Arthur Brown. When that does not work the next stop is a visit to the Acid Queen (Tina Turner) a prostitute who administers LSD, she sends Tommy on a ‘trip’ of a lifetime but still it does not bring back his senses. After a couple of unsavoury episodes involving a Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) and an Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) and a strange occurrence in a scrapyard its discovered that the deaf, dumb and blind kid can sure play a mean pinball beating the local champ, a Pinball Wizard played by Elton John who wears the famous giant pair of Doc Martins. This changes all their lives with Nora and Frank cashing in on Tommy’s messiah status. I could go on with the story but I think you’ve got the idea, suffice to say the scene with the inspirationally cast Ann-Margret and the beans is worth your admission money all by its self. Russell said that this scene was a revenge parody of real life TV advertisements he had directed early in his career!
The movie deals with some pretty serious matters like the cult of fame, drugs, and prejudice towards the disabled and sexual abuse. I first saw this film on release but I must admit I’d forgotten how good it was, seeing it recently on a rare screening on the BBC. The film has no dialogue at all, its narrative is carried solely by the words and music of Townsend and the Who and the episodic cinematography directed with great flair and imagination by Russell. This combination of the eccentricities of Townsend’s writing and Ken Russell direction show how modern day musical’s should be made, with class and that slightly off kilter humour that the director is famous for rather than the dull conformity that appeases the majority of the culturally dead masses who revel in the mediocrity of such films as Mamma Mia (2008).
Ken we really miss you - more than ever these day’s.