Movie Name: Tommy
Release Date(s): March 19, 1975
MPAA Rating: PG
The “deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball”. Tommy Walker (Roger Daltrey) loses his sight, hearing, and the ability to speak after witnessing his father’s accidental murder, but rises to fame as a pinball wizard with the help of his mother (Ann-Margret) and his stepfather (Oliver Reed). Heroes may rise, but the fall can be twice as hard.
Directed by Ken Russell, Tommy adapts The Who’s 1969 “rock-opera” album of the same title. The movie was relatively well received by critics and received Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Ann-Margret) and Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score (Pete Townshend).
By 1975, musicals were already kind of wearing thin. A new crop of “hippy” musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Godspell helped to give a slight boost to the genre, but many of the great musicals had already been filmed by this time. Tommy is a perfect fit for these musicals both in theme and style.
The story for Tommy is set up in The Who’s album and already bridges on absurdity. The film flushes out and ties the songs together a bit better and presents a Christ figure like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Unlike those two musical, Tommy is a false idol that while he himself isn’t evil, he is surrounded by those who use and abuse him…literally and figuratively. Unlike something like A Clockwork Orange or Goodfellas, you kind of want Tommy to succeed, but the commercialism surrounding his miracle is his downfall.
The movie can give a lot of its success to its cast. Robert Daltrey isn’t forced to act much and mostly just plays Tommy as a starry-eyed kid for most of the movie, but there is something electric about his energy and style when Tommy does come alive. Ann-Margret gives it all as Tommy’s mother and even injured herself during her famous baked beans, detergent, and chocolate scene. Oliver Reed is a good slimy guy and other members of The Who John Entwistle, Pete Townshend, and Keith Moon also make appearances. Elton John appears in his famous giant shoes and glasses as the Pinball Wizard, Tina Turner is the Acid Queen, and Eric Clapton plays the Preacher. Jack Nicholson gives a rare singing performance as the Specialist and director Ken Russell plays a cripple.
The actors oddly sing all their own songs. The music doesn’t dub over The Who’s album and modifies some of the music. Some of these actors (like Nicholson and Reed) probably shouldn’t be singing but it gives the movie a more authentic feel, but it is also kind of jarring if you are used to the album. The music combines with some great over the top visuals especially surrounding Tommy’s visions and his camp.
The Who’s Tommy is a different film and as a result is a lot of fun. I concede it isn’t the best musical, but it is world above some of the other musicals produced in the ’70s and ’80s (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I’m glaring at you). The spirit and the energy of the film carries over and continues to make Tommy stand-out. Follow Tommy’s teachings…“Hear me, touch me, feel me” and enjoy Tommy.