The Who, The Sixties, Tommy The Rock Opera – but have you ever seen the film? Released in 1975 and directed by Ken Russell, I saw it when it came out at a cinema somewhere on The Wirral, Wallasey perhaps? It was 40 years ago! The film is much maligned but I consider it to be rather underrated, controversial and mind blowing when you’re seventeen.
The scene with Tina Turner at 32 minutes is worth the price of entry alone. Earlier at 25 minutes Eric Clapton and Arthur Brown’s guest appearances are worthy and the Uncle Ernie scene (Keith Moon) at 43 minutes is totally controversial. Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret sleazing their way through each scene and at 47 minutes the music is amazing as Daltrey clambers through the scrapyard.
Daltrey is great as Tommy, and at 52 mins Elton John sings Pinball Wizard in his giant boots and as he is beaten by the “Pinball Wizard” he falls off them and is carried away. There’s The Who smashing up their equipment, screaming fans and Ann-Margret’s cavorting at 57 minutes through Daltrey’s plea – See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, until she throws the champagne bottle through the television screen, igniting an avalanche of foam and a waterfall of baked beans and chocolate – what fun this film must have been to make. One can only wonder what Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson and Keith Moon got up to.
At an hour and 4 minutes it’s Jack Nicholson as the specialist. Critics have little time for Nicholson and Oliver Reed’s singing and probably Ann-Margret’s exaggerated vibrato but guess what – IT’S A MUSICAL. Ha Ha!! That’s the point! Characters not singers, it’s called a Rock Opera but it’s not, it’s a Rock musical.
There’s drama, despair, regret, abuse, survival, decadence, denial of materialism, music hall, dynamic musical passages, Rock, cabaret, symbolism, religion, messianic hero worship, violence, murder, remorse, Hell’s Angel’s, dancing Teddy Boys and disillusionment and rebellion – what’s not to like? But is the film dated? Yes! Does it matter? No! The spirit of the times, watch it in the spirit of the times.
Great songs like Amazing Journey, Daltrey singing his heart out, Townshend singing and playing his heart out, Entwistle and Moon playing their hearts out. Interestingly the film period differs from the album – the album is post World War 1 and the film Post World War 2. How much of an influence was all this on Roger Waters?
Although The Pretty Things may have come up with the original idea for a Rock Opera or were at least the first to complete the concept, what The Who did, or what Ken Russell did, was turn it into a spectacle. Townshend was nominated for an Oscar and Ann-Margret received an Academy Award nomination for best actress winning a Golden Globe. And let’s not forget Paul Nicholas playing a convincing Cousin Kevin and Robert Powell, Ann-Margret’s husband, Tommy’s father and missing RAF pilot whose murder at the hands of Oliver Reed afflicts Tommy in the first place as he stands in the bedroom doorway – whatever happened to Barry Winch – the young Tommy?
After watching the film I found it rather stimulating listening to the album all the way through, because ultimately this is an album by The Who, produced by Kit Lambert and adapted to film, it’s another world altogether and the ultimate musical experience for the listeners and for the players in Pete Townshend’s great adventure.