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Parent Issue
Day
23
Month
May
Year
1975
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Directed and written by Ken Russell. Music by Peter Townshend and the Who. Nothing exceeds like excess. Hollywood is built on the proposition that there can never be too much of a good thing, that it is better to ignite a holocaust than light a single candle in the dark. And of all the unsubtle, immodest and shameless purveyors of surfeit in the movie'business, Ken Russell emerges as the King of Too Much. His fantastic biographies (Tchaikovsky, Gaudier-Brezska, Mahler) his Iiterary transfigurations ("Women in Love," "The Devils of Loudon") and his musical comedies ("The Boy Friend," and now "Tommy") scream for attention by fair means of foul, like child prodigies throwing tempentantrums. Images, wounds, pigments, trompes l'oeil: Russell comes in colors-all over us. Tommy is nothing if not excessive,and yet it is Russel'sfinest trip. For sheer aural and visual excitment, no movie I've seen since Fantasia (in its first-run showing) so knocked my socks off. Russell has done at last what moviemakers and musicians have been trying to do since the beginning of the rock epoch: he has found a way to evoke the specific emotions of music on film. All the other "rock musicals," ficitional or documentary, have merely suggested the kind of integration that Russell achieves in Tommy. He uses the two-dimensional patterns on the screen, a Technicolor paintbrush and magie imagery to créate the highs and lows, the dissonances and the soaring harmonies that the best of the music used to produce -under extremely stoned conditions when rock was young. Ünfortunately, rock is not young anymore, and Russell's trip has a curiously detached quality. Tommy is an extraordinarily heady movie, but Ileft the theater thinking I had seen the best movie of 1 969-as a midnight special five years later, in a series with 2001, Help, anddmme Shelter. The strange anachronism of Tommy is not entirely Russell's fault, although he is not completely blameless, either. Much of the problem springs from the oppressive banality of Peter Townshend's original story, which was at bottom a sophomoric parable of Meher Baba mysticism. In the first blush of the counter-culture, it seemed far enough out, especially since it was nearly unintelligible in the Who's album version. Now, we are left no alternative but follow the inanities to the dreadful end, as Tommy (played by Daltrey) literally "climbs the mountain" and finds hippy-dippy heaven as the choruses wail. It has been offered in apology for Tommy that as an opera -even a rock opera-it need have no more plausible plot than, say, "The Magie Flute" an equally pretentious parable of spiritual revelation that used Masonry instead of Meher Babaism in its eighteenth century context. Perhaps the apology is valid; but at least nowadays one does not have to take Mozart's pretentions seriously, while Townshend's have a certain political forcé. That is, Tommy's mindless message is a live issue for much of the movie's audience, and as such it gets in the way of the pure enjoyment of the sights and sounds. Russell deliberately constructed his movie as an opera, not a "musical." There was no synchronized sound dialogue recorded; the entire soundtrack was produced off-camera and the singers and actors (whose actual voices are used, of course) move their lips in the appropriate frames. The effect is off-putting at first, but it contributes to the sense of operatic fantasy and other-worldiness that Russell creates. His cinema is the polar opposite of "verite," though no less honest. He offers no illusions that what he is showing on the screen is taking place on any level of reality. Traditional movie musicals altérnate production numberswith pseudorealistic action and dialogue. Fred Astaire or Mitzi Gaynor or whoever engage in their serious plot-progressing business, and periodically fly off into song and dance. Tommy is all song and dance, all setpieces.all imagination. Within that, some of the sequences are mind-boggling. By now, the hype for Tina Turner's Acid Queen scène with Daltrey must have penetrated the far reaches of the potentialaudience, but there need be no skepticism about its brilliance. La Turner may be upset about the liberties Russell took with his lens work-her marvelous mouth and liberated Iegs fairly jump out from the-screen-but her minutes in Tommy will prove to be a classic in the movies equal to Gene Kelley's "Singin' in the Rain" ballet or Kubrick's "Blue Danube" cosmowaltz. For a good part of his movie, Russell tries to manipúlate Townshend's plot with cynical irreverence and a certain amount of mockery, to avoid the most blatant inanities. The story, if you've missed it by now (the various incarnations of music, in albums and live performances have been heard and seen by millions in the past six years) concerns a child who awakes one night to witness the murder of his father (who has returned after being reported lost in the Battle of Britain) by his mother's lover. Mother (AnnMargaret) and lover (Oliver Reed) bend young Tommy's mind ("You didn't hear it, you didn't see it") with such ear-splitting threats that he loses his sight, hearing and speech. Later attempts to effect a cure through dope, religión and medicine all fail. But after one traumatic encounter with his own ego, or soul, ordoppelganger, Tommy finds that he can play the pinball game better than anyone in the world. Mother and step-father parlay Tommy's idiot-savant talent into big show biz, with resultant fame and fortune for all. Once again, an emotional-spiritual crisis erupts and Tommy breaks through the "mirror" of his ego nto a new level of personal integration. "I'm Free!" heexclaims, and. goes winging off to fields of waving flowers and strands of white beach. But not quite free: he is hailed as a kind of youth messiah and again the family capitalizes on the adulation. Not until his acolytes turn against him does he understand that true freedom lies in self-realization and the development of an inner visión, helpfully depicted by Russell as a big shining ball rising from behind the highe'st rñountain. Russell milks as many innuendoes from this story as he can. Some are easy: Tommy's pinball wizardry is a close analogy to rock superstardom, and the greed of his elders is meant to stand for the materialism of the entrepreneurs of the rock culture (t.g. Russell and Columbia Pictures?). Tommy's freak-out at his father's murder is played ambiguously to suggest he is really traumatized by the discovery of his mother's sexuality. Later, his selfcontinued on page 21 Movies continued from page 16 realization follows the ghostlike appearance of his twin, or himself, symbolizing self-love perhaps. In any case, it hardly matters. The movie is deliberately ambiguous, probably because it would be too absurd to be literal with the original script. The mockeries come at the best places. Tommy's exultant "Pm free!" romp is spoiled by a platoon of sinister insecticide sprayers at the end of the field of yellow flowers. His flight down the beach is marred by a row of parked cars, sumably with smoochers inside, watching his movement. The "religious" cure attempt is set inside a church (actually a Royal Navy chapel) dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, with the object of veneration an enormous icon of the Madonna in her "Seven Year Itch" lifted-skirt pose; the sacrament is a dose of Johnnie Walker and barbiturates. And Tommy's mother's cultural decay is completed as Ann-Margaret is inundated withthe detritus of televisión advertising. Through it all, Russell Iets his imagination run wild: too wild, of course, as is his way. But Tommy is worth his excesses. It is a remarkable original movie, and as a whole much better than its music, its acting and, needless to say, the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy. (Reprinted from the Real Paper)