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Ken Russell’s bizarre and ineffably seedy and fetishistic rock opera Tommy, based on the Who’s 1969 concept album, is now on rerelease. It is 44 years since it arrived in cinemas, and we were all shocked at that extraordinarily horrible scene with the paedophile babysitter Uncle Ernie, played by Keith Moon. This is a character even Roald Dahl would have flinched from imagining: cracking an egg into his glass of 70s warm beer and then proceeding to “fiddle about” with the blind, deaf, dumb and Christ-like young Tommy, played by Roger Daltrey. (Dennis Potter’s BBC TV play Brimstone and Treacle was banned for something comparable.) Tommy has lost his senses due to a trauma relating to sex and violence as a child, and finally retreats into the seraphic mystery of being a passionately worshipped public figure.
The Uncle Ernie scene was the one I found most upsetting when I saw this originally as a teenager, though watching it again now I realise I had failed to clock a very dodgy touch: Uncle Ernie is reading Gay News, with its “Obscenity Trial Triumph” headline. I can’t believe that anyone making this film believed that gay and paedophile were interchangeable, but it was a clumsy irony.
Ann-Margret and Robert Powell play Nora and Captain Walker, a wartime married couple seen first where the film is to climax: in Borrowdale in the Lake District, the location for a number of Russell’s films. Walker is an RAF pilot on leave and, when he is reported missing, presumed killed in action, Nora remarries holiday camp entertainer Frank (Oliver Reed), who after the war becomes a strip club manager and a drunken, negligent stepfather to her little boy Tommy. But Captain Walker reappears at their family home, his face badly burned, and, in a fit of madness, Frank kills him. Little Tommy witnesses these awful events: in shock, he loses his sight, hearing and ability to speak, despite his mother desperately trying faith-healers such as a weird Church of Marilyn Monroe, led by the Preacher (Eric Clapton), and conventional medicine typified by the Specialist, a besuited figure played by Jack Nicholson. His stepdad gets someone called the Acid Queen (Tina Turner) to try fixing Tommy by turning him on to drugs.
But the miracle is that Tommy becomes a world-famous pinball champ – the pinball psycho-karmically connected with the ball bearings that his mum once made in her wartime factory. Tommy becomes worshipped like a rock star, and from there he becomes a guru and spiritual leader to a mercurial mob who might at any moment turn on him.
From the modern vantage point, you can see (and savour) Tommy’s connection not just to Russell’s freaky Lisztomania (released the same year) but to A Clockwork Orange, Yellow Submarine and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with its kids who don’t need no education. There’s even a touch of Lionel Bart. Tommy can be alienating, boring, fascinating, scrappy, occasionally brilliant – as with the immortally superb track Pinball Wizard, whose chord progressions interestingly morph into the later song I’m Free while Elton John, in his surreally giant Doc Martens (confusingly himself called the Pinball Wizard despite hailing Tommy as the same), looks annoyed at how Tommy is beating him.
What’s really interesting about Tommy is that it is about how the generation who led the pop revolution of the 60s had vivid but undisclosed memories of their wartime childhoods. The second world war and pop music are generally sealed off from each other in our culture, but Tommy brought them into alignment, showing how the pop liberation was a reaction to the pinched privation of wartime. (And then punk, it has to be said, was a reaction to the prog-concept indulgence of which Tommy was an example.) When Brit cinema mostly opted for dullness, Ken Russell was showing us a film that was daring and risky and mad.
• This piece was amended on 22 November 2019 to correct the spelling of Ann-Margret’s name.
Source: The Guardian
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