Tommy (1975): Ken Russell’s Eccentric Musical of The Who, Starring Ann-Margret in Oscar Nominated Performance

Ken Russell’s film version of Tommy sacrifices the emotional core of Pete Townshend’s work for the effects of a bombastically grandiose spectacle.

Yet despite major flaws, Tommy is continuously watchable, punctuated (0r rather punctured) by dazzling moments of excessive visual saturation of the senses.

Indeed, Tommy is never boring, and it is always dynamic, especially given the loose framework and imprecise plot Russell has to work with.

Starring Ann-Margaret (who was Oscar-nominated) and The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey, Russell’s musical movie features appearances by such legendary singers as Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Tina Turner, and also actors, like Jack Nicholson.

Peter Townsend wrote the book, lyrics and music for 1968 British TV production of “Tommy.” The score immediately became a cultural phenomenon with a most successful record album and live performances, usually in concert versions, in many countries. (In 1993, Townsend received the Tony Award for the Broadway revival of “Tommy.”)

Exploring themes of pop culture, the cult of personality, religious deification, sexual abuse and spiritual enlightenment, “Tommy was a new form of rock and roll, influenced in part by the political and cultural changes of the late 1960s.
The classic rock opera was brought to life by an outstanding cast including many major stars of the rock music industry.  Told through the remarkable music of The Who, the movie is the story of Tommy (Roger Daltrey). As a six-year-old boy, Tommy witnessed the murder of his father by his mother’s lover (Oliver Reed).
Choosing to protect her lover rather than her son, Tommy’s mother (Ann-Margret) tells the boy to forget what he’s seen and heard.  As a result, the traumatized boy retreats into the shadows of his mind; in a semi-catatonic state, he cannot see, hear, or speak.
As he becomes a mature man, Tommy’s condition makes him susceptible to all kinds of abuses.  He is also subjected to several bizarre cures for his ailment, including attempts by The Acid Queen (Tina Turner), the Preacher (Eric Clapton) and the Specialist (Jack Nicholson).
However, in spite of his handicap, Tommy manages to defeat the Pinball Wizard (Elton John) and becomes the champ, attaining a devoted following.  When he is finally cured, his fans hail him as the new “Messiah.”

With its focus on the visceral and sensual, a film adaptation of Tommy was a natural development.  Director Russell whose films had explored similar themes in his own unique style, brings to “Tommy” his characteristic visual richness, the fleshing out of characters with high-caliber actors like Oliver Reed and Ann-Margaret, and the expansion of a back story with songs that are new to the film.

In 1975, the theatrical trailer for Russell’s eccentric musical promised that after seeing the film “your senses will never be the same.”   It turned out to be true for many spectators. Many of the original album’s songs remain, and the resulting film explores Tommy’s experience in a whole new way, including a powerful new soundtrack technology that maximize the audience’s sensorial experience of the music.

Songs like “Pinball Wizard,” “Tommy, Can You Hear Me,” “Sensation,” “Amazing Journey” and “Christmas,” were the backbone of the story of Tommy, a deaf, dumb and blind kid, who’s psychosomatic symptoms arise from witnessing the murder of his father, and the exhortation by his mother and her lover that Tommy he did not see it–and he won’t say anything to anyone.

Based on the existing record industry development of Quadraphonic sound, “Tommy” features the first (and only) example of the Quadraphonic soundtrack, a revolutionary format that uses five discrete channels of sound to deliver the movie’s music in a “Sound in the Round” manner.  The audio envelops the audience from all directions.  The combination of The Who’s music, Ken Russell’s eccentric, often psychedelic visuals and the innovation of the Quintaphonic format result in a highly intense cinematic experience.

The Who’s rock-opera “Tommy” was a personal project of Pete Townshend. First performed in 1968, the piece was both critically acclaimed and controversial, eventually becoming a cultural icon. In 1998, the importance of the album was recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Ann-Margret gives an astonishing performance, without having the benefit of a well written (or written at all) role, as the mother, changing moods and expressions as often as she changes dresses, ranging from a virginal white to hot red.

Ken Russell’s films have often been criticized as being eccentric, overwhelming, overproduced, tasteless, but considering the premise of Tommy and the fact that it’s plotless, he has made a movie that services the grand music and is never boring for the eyes or ears.  Yes, it relies heavily on montage and it my have too many cuts, but some sequences, such as the pinball tournament sequence are remarkable.

Despite mixed reviews, the film was a box office hit. By August 1975, it had earned $27 million (equivalent to $104 million in 2020) in the U.S. alone.

The film made over $1 million (equivalent to $4 million in 2020) in France alone.

Ken Russell later called it “the most commercial film I’ve ever made”.

Give it a chance, and don’t dismiss it as an exercise of excess for excess sake.

Oscar Nominations: 2

 Actress: Ann-Margret
Scoring (Original Score or Adaptation): Peter Townsend
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context
The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Louise Fletcher for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which swept most of the awards, including Best Picture.
The winner of the Scoring Oscar went to Leonard Rosenman for “Barry Lyndon,” directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Running time: 111 Minutes.
MPAA Rating: PG.

Sony released Tommy, the 1975 film based on The Who’s album of the same name, on Blu-ray DVD with original Quintaphonic sound on September 7, 2010.