“His eyes are the eyes that transmit all they know,
The truth burns so bright it can melt winter snow.
A towering shadow, so black and so high,
A white sun burning the earth and the sky.”
—Pete Townshend, “Amazing Journey” from Tommy
“Tommy: The Movie. Your senses will never be the same.”
—Original 1975 ad campaign.
On Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m., the newly remastered and restored print of Ken Russell’s Tommy will burst into life on the big screen at The Carolina Asheville in all its Quintophonic sound glory. It marks the first time this restoration has been shown in this part of the world. To date, it’s only been shown—to sold-out houses—in Los Angeles by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and New York by Lincoln Center. The minute I learned of its existence, I was determined that the Asheville Film Society would bring it to town—and here it is.
If you’ve never seen Tommy on the big screen or never seen it with its original Quintophonic soundtrack (and if you didn’t see it in its road show incarnation in 1975 when it came out, you haven’t seen it with that soundtrack), this is a remarkable opportunity—and one that very likely will never come again. This new version was made to celebrate the film’s 35th anniversary and, in a broader sense, Ken Russell’s career. This year has been the summer of Ken Russell—with retropspectives in Los Angeles, Montreal, New York and Toronto honoring the 83-year-old filmmaker. Reports have it that the screening of his 1970 film The Music Lovers was punctuated with spontaneous outbursts of applause by audiences just now coming to appreciate or discover his work. For those of us who’ve been championing his films for years, this is very gratifying—mixed with a certain sense of “what took you so long?”
We’ve been ahead of the curve here in Asheville, since we had Russell here in 2005 as the guest of the Asheville Film Festival—at which time we had a 30th anniversary screening of Tommy, though not in this restored version. I take—and Asheville can take—a certain amount of pride in the fact that Russell ranks his Asheville experience as among the most enjoyable of all the retrospectives he’s ever had—possibly the most enjoyable one. Considering the fact that he sang along with the film during that screening and shouted out when old friends like Oliver Reed, Roger Daltrey and Elton John appeared on the screen, I have no reason to doubt him.
I’m no stranger to Tommy—and that may just be the understatement of a couple centuries. I saw the film 16 times upon its original release, always dragging someone new along with me—and I should note that the theater was 65 miles away. One of those was the occasional Xpress site commenter known as Rufus, who said to me afterwards, “I could see a film like that again sometime—like maybe tomorrow.” (And I’m pretty sure we did.) It’s not unusual for me to see a film more than once when it first comes out, but Tommy is still the record holder. I was there again the next year when it was re-issued. I took out a signature loan in order to shell out $425 for a bootleg 16mm print of the film in 1977. I’ve owned every video version ever released, and I used to have a running argument with Ken Russell as to which of us had seen it more. After I broke triple digits, he conceded.
The film caused me to start tracking down any and every Ken Russell movie I could find—a process that in those days meant waiting for some film society, rep house or university to show them. It took five years to see all of his theatrical films—and I’m still working on the ones made for TV. I spent about 50 pages of my book Ken Russell’s Films (1984) writing about Tommy in a scene-by-scene—sometimes shot-by-shot—analysis. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that here.) I wrote fairly extensively about it again in Video Watchdog when Oliver Reed died in 1999. I wrote about it in the Xpress when the stage version was presented here, and again in 2005 when it showed at the film festival. I should perhaps be Tommy-ed out, but I’m not.
For those who weren’t there in 1975 and know little, if anything, about the film, it needs to be understood that this was no mere movie—this was an event in every sense of the term. It was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone (“What’s deaf, dumb, blind and costs three-and-a-half-million dollars?”). The film’s premiere was covered on TV, and radio stations did call-in polls as to which version of “Pinball Wizard” listeners preferred—the Who’s original or the new one from Elton John. (The mood was such that Elton generally won.) And then there was this fabulous, unheard of sound system—Quntophonic—that gave the film four music and effects channels and a center channel for the vocals. It was only used in limited engagements, because it required the installation of special equipment. In those days, you were lucky if the theater had stereo and the idea of any kind of “Surround Sound” was unheard of. The impact is hard to imagine—and no DVD release has ever really managed to recreate it. Apparently, this new version does.
The film itself—well that was something yet again. No one had seen anything like it. Remember this is pre-MTV. In fact, for good or ill, Ken Russell and Tommy may be viewed as having largely spawned MTV. (Clapton knows, music videos have ripped off enough from it. Russell himself invoked it in 1985 when he had Elton John strap on his “Pinball Wizard” boots for the “Nikita” video.”) Oh, there’d been rapid cutting before, but nothing like the 150-plus cuts in the space of a few minutes of the “Pinball Wizard” sequence. And there’d been “trippy” imagery before, but this was different in that it was a symbolic part of the story and the fabric of the film (the same can be said of the editing). There’d even been a rock opera before with Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)—though people still argue about whether or not that’s really rock music. But Jewison’s film was positively staid by comparison.
Russell’s film soared. It grabbed you with its low droning note over the simple opening credit and its straight cut—with a blast of music—to that still potent, striking first image that provides the key to so much of the film. It then carried you through on a wave of imagery and sound and color that was revelatory. When I think of the film in a purely personal manner, I’m always reminded of Alec Guinness’s lines from The Horse’s Mouth (1958) where his artist character, Gulley Jimson, is talking about painting and becoming a painter—“One day I saw a painting by Matisse, a reproduction. I saw it because some of the chaps were laughing at it and called me over. It gave me the shock of my life. It skinned my eyes for me and I became a different man—like a conversion. I saw a new world.” I experienced something of that sort in that I saw a new world of film—and its possibilities.
Actually, my initial encounter with the film was a little perplexing. It took three tries to actually get in to see the film because of the crowds. I finally decided that the only answer was to show up about an hour early and stand in line. Even at an hour early, the line was substantial, but that worked. What did not entirely work was the fact that after standing in the lobby for a good 15 minutes with my date swearing to me that, no, she didn’t want anything, no sooner were we seated than she informs she wants popcorn. Being an insecure 20-year-old (dating a 34-year-old, too), I naturally acquiecsed—even though this meant sidling past a packed row of humanity. As a result, the movie started in my absence, meaning I missed the first few shots. That was bad enough in itself, but she compounded it by telling me, “There’s a shot like that of him at the beginning,” when the film reached its end. Well, I couldn’t make any sense out of that and I didn’t get it straightened out till I saw the film a second time and realized her popcorn-munching level of comprehension was wanting.
I didn’t know at the time that the possibility of having a Ken Russell picture without a controversy was simply non-existent, though I wasn’t really surprised when quite a few Who fans hated the film—mostly because it wasn’t the 1969 Who album. They overlooked the fact that Pete Townshend—the composer and author of the concept—had specifically wanted Rusell’s vision. And they ignored the fact that musically the film reflected where Townshend was as a composer at the time it was made more than the original album did. (Compare the film’s soundtrack with the concurrently produced Quadrophenia album and you’ll see—or hear—what I mean.) Whatever would they have made of it had Townshend gotten his wish to have Tiny Tim perform “Pinball Wizard” instead of Elton John (seems Townshend thought it would sound great played by 100 ukuleles, or so he claimed at the time)?
In one sense, they had a point, though if you approach the film strictly from a vocal standpoint as concerns Oliver Reed singing the lead role of Frank Hobbs. It is fair to say that Reed was no singer, but the point being missed here was that he was singing in character. On that score, he’s perfect—which a lot of people have since come to understand. At the time, even some of the people working on the film didn’t get it. Jack Nicholson famously noted that he didn’t think much himself as a singer, but that Reed was plainly awful. Oh, well, Nicholson was at least right assessing his own singing, but that works, too, in its amusing manner.
That brings us to another point. When the film was first released, audiences approached it almost reverentially—watching it in what I made the mistake of calling “stone silence” after the 2005 screening (Russell quipped that it was probably “stoned silence”). It wasn’t intended to be taken that way. There are some very funny moments in the film and much of the approach is quite playful. Yes, it is a serious film about nothing less than the concept of transcendence and universal salvation, but I’m relieved to see that modern viewers seem to have realized that it really is OK to laugh when the movie’s being funny.
The structure of the film is unusual—and not just because it breaks down into song set-pieces that showcase a variety of guest performers—Elton, Nicholson, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Paul Nicholas, Arthur Brown. It’s also not merely because the film is circular in that ends with a mirror of how it begins. (The last seven shots mirror the action of the first seven shots in reverse order.) It’s more than that in that the movie builds in terms of complexity of structure as concerns the editing. reaching a peak at the halfway point with “Pinball Wizard,”—and then gradually works its way through simpler sequences. This isn’t going to be apparent on a single viewing, but it inherently gives the film a shape and a feeling.
So what exactly is Tommy—I mean apart from being a groundbreaking rock opera? Well, it’s a kind of spiritual journey. In Townshend’s hands, it was more Eastern in outlook and had a good deal to do with Meher Baba. Russell transposed it to more Western—or Christian—terms, which made it more accessible to U.S. and European minds, but he retained its basic ideas. He altered some things and had Townshend create some new material to cover lapses in the narrative, and placed it all in WWII and post-war setting. He made it a direct assault on phony religion, false gods and materialism—presenting a view of modern times as an endurance test that must be passed through to attain a real state of enlightenment. It often paints an unpretty—even nightmarish—picture, but it ends up being completely optimistic.
The film’s storyline follows the title character from conception to enlightenment and salvation. It traces his birth, his childhood, the trauma that turns him psycologically deaf, dumb and blind, and his tormets at the hands of others while in this state. It follows his rise to cult stardom as a pinball champion and his even greater rise as “the new messiah”—and what happens from that. It does all this with boundless imagination, with wit and with heart. It scored a hit in 1975 and brought Oscar nominations for Ann-Margret and Pete Townshend (Columbia lobbied for one for Russell, but didn’t get it). And now, its 35th anniversary is being celebrated.
I’ve never grown tired of the film, because there’s always something more to be found in it or some new way of looking at it—and it always seems to be relevant. And I still get a thrill when Townshend sings, “Captain Walker didn’t come home,” which is the first time the human voice appears in the film (about eight minutes in). I was with Ken Russell at the Florida Film Festival in 2007 when someone asked him—during a Q&A after a screening of Crimes of Passion (1984)—about the infamous “baked beans” sequence in Tommy. The young man asking about the impetus for the scene noted that his parents had seen the film back in 1975 and were still talking about it. Well, I knew the story behind the scene involving Russell having made commercials for baked beans, soap mix powder and chocolates (all of which come into play) early in his career. I also knew that the sequence depicted Tommy’s mother’s (Ann-Margret) baptism into complete consumerism. But Russell said none of this and simply replied with a single word that the driving force behind it was “genius.” I think his answer is better than mine. After all, how many sequences are still being talked about 30-plus years later?
When we ran Tommy in 2005, Russell remarked, “I had a wonderful experience last night. I’ve seen Tommy a few times with very many audiences, but last night a very strange thing happened—and this is absolutely true and sincere—there was an atmosphere in the audience—I think a few had seen the film before, some it was for the first time—and it was an atmosphere I’d never ever experienced before. It was a sort of awakening of a sort of absolute agreement and sort of understanding of what was coming off the screen—from the music and the imagery—and I’d never experienced it quite that way.” I’m hoping to recapture that vibe on Sept. 1—and seeing and hearing it as it was meant to be, I think there’s a good chance we will.
I should note that tickets are on sale now at The Carolina and that they have been selling, so purchasing them in advance would be extemely wise. This is not a chance that is likely to come again.