Tommy… The story of that deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball. That’s right, this is not a musical directly inspired by the real world. Writer/composer Pete Townsend and writer/director Ken Russell take an already bizarre premise and push and pull it towards and from every side imaginable. The strangest thing of all? It works.
There are mainly two things that make Tommy work. First and foremost, the music. The story is carried forward and taken on weird detours by some of the most incredible rock tunes to have ever been written, The Acid Queen, Pinball Wizard, I’m Free and We’re Not Gonna Take It, just to mention a few. But The Who don’t just know all about how to create mind-blowing music, their lead guitarist seems to also know how to tell a story through these songs and how to send a message across with their help.
The message might not always be that obvious, it’s true. However, it’s there. Tommy is a very messy but clever attack on organized religion. Indeed in some places you forget what the film is trying to say, but most of the times you don’t care in the slightest. The music and absurd lines keep you entertained and you find yourself accepting rather easily that not everything needs to always make sense. Great rock ‘n’ roll makes all the sense you need.
From side to side psychedelic, still Tommy never flows, more, it rocks, shouts, stumbles, falls, gets back up and does something even crazier than before. Great excess becomes a part of the story and each scene seems to try hard to confuse us more than the previous one had. Indeed it’s all a big show, an exaggeration. Tommy is loud, it’s a rock opera with an anti-religious message. And after all it’s The Who, so it just had to be thunderous, extreme, surreal and outright rebellious. Anything else would have disappointed us.
The over-the-top performances beautifully sustain this rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza, but I believe that Ann-Margret, as Tommy’s mother, and Jack Nicholson as the specialist who is treating Tommy, steal the show. Ann-Margret’s voice, dance and manic gestures and movements, together with Jack Nicholson’s crazy doctor eyes, offer the film that extra type of madness that it would otherwise lack, and this would be a great shame in such a collection of strangeness such as this one. Roger Daltrey as Tommy seems oblivious. After all he is the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard who turns into an overnight sensation, a guru and a leader. Tina Turner as the Acid Queen and Oliver Reed as Tommy’s stepfather are dark, mysterious and dauntingly powerful. You never quite know, or even want to know, where they’re coming from or where they’re going. Elton John as a fellow pinball champion and Tommy’s main rival and Eric Clapton as a preacher in the Marilyn Monroe church, give two cameos that deserve a mention for their comedy, absurdity and weirdly, their appropriateness.
Because although we might have never really thought of it, there is certainly a pleasure to come out of seeing an Elton John dressed in the most exaggerated costume and competing for the pinball wizard champion title, and I’d think that it’s the exact same amount of satisfaction that we’d get from seeing Eric Clapton preaching the Marilyn Monroe teachings. It’s odd, it’s funny, it’s accompanied by some unbelievable rock ‘n’ roll performed by John Entwistle, Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon and it’s satisfying needs we never thought we had. Pete Townsend and Ken Russel’s Tommy is weird but so much fun. But to be entertained, you first need to accept the mystery.