‘Tommy’: A trip ahead of its time

“Your senses will never be the same,” claimed the advertising slogan for Ken Russell’s 1975 film version of Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy. And for this writer, at least, that proved very true.

The movie introduced me to Russell’s world, which in turn inspired me to write a book about his movies. Tommy was the genesis of a friendship with the filmmaker that continues today.

It’s hard to completely understand today the impact the film had upon its release. Remember there was no MTV back then; the music video really didn’t exist in any form. And thus Tommy‘s utter departure from traditional filmmaking techniques was overwhelming — and all of it accompanied by “Quintophonic” sound (an elaborate, complex, early version of surround sound).

There had simply been nothing like this film — and in many ways, there’s never been anything like it since. Tommy was more than a movie; it was an experience.

Even devoid of that original impact, however, Russell’s film still offers a brilliant, unabated assault on the senses — there are more than 150 cuts in the “Pinball Wizard” sequence alone, which may still be the record for rapid-fire editing. Russell’s movie was also the first interpretation of Townshend’s work to place its Eastern-based mysticism in a Western, Judeo-Christian context.

Remaining true to Townshend’s basic story and themes, Russell crafted a film that was inherently personal and relevant to him — a Catholic allegory that detailed the malaise of postwar Britain. Its dim view of modern times gives way finally to a hopeful belief in redemption, even universal salvation. And while these themes were inherent in the source material, Russell presented them in a more suggestive manner, allowing his audience to decipher them on their own terms: The movie was simply Russell‘s interpretation.

Still, the filmmaker’s Christian imagery is inescapable: Tommy’s father (Robert Powell, who would, ironically, go on to play Jesus Christ in Franco Zeffirelli’s TV film) is crucified in a WWII airplane. Roger Daltrey’s Tommy, a toppler of false religion, is envisioned as Christ with a crown of thorns made of Remembrance Day poppies.

The nonstop baptism imagery, however, is especially interesting, since it includes the notorious baked-bean scene in which Tommy’s mother (Ann-Margret) wallows in a cascade of soap suds, beans and chocolate spewed into her bedroom through a TV screen.

Her consecration amounts to a complete immersion in the world of materialist consumerism. This is countered, however, by numerous instances of cleansing baptisms (no less than five in the course of the film), making it clear that Tommy is essentially about redemption — something that is in rather short supply in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Should anyone decide to revisit the cinematic Tommy, here’s a word of friendly warning — go for the DVD and not the VHS copies, the latter of which were not only badly transferred, but have abominable soundtracks. And if you have surround sound, be sure to set the disc for the Quintophonic mode, because it otherwise defaults to a plain stereo mix.

None of this will make it 1975 again, of course, and your senses might not be permanently altered. But your efforts will afford you a unique cinematic experience.

– Ken Hanke

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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