Tommy June 25, 2016
If Ken Russell’s Tommy were an animal, it’d be a greasy, rabid one, foaming at the mouth, quivering maniacally, and darting about the premises desperately looking for a piece of flesh to rip apart. Tommy is so overstuffed with ideas and vigor that there comes a point in which we expect, if not desire for, its momentum to come to a screeching halt.
And yet it never collapses on itself. Anticipated fatigue reaches us — any movie that moves as spastically as this one is bound to drain any viewer that comes across it — but Russell’s seemingly chaotic staging is so meticulously chaotic that it maintains its lunacy like a shaken soda about to be opened, with the potential to explode but never actually releasing all its energy in order to jump back to point A.
Its hysteria isn’t for nothing.Tommy is based upon The Who’s 1969 rock opera album of the same name, which, in itself, is legendary for its artistic risks. Its centerpiece is “Pinball Wizard,” a classic song that, if you don’t already know, tells the story of a young man named Tommy, a deaf, dumb, and blind kid with the inscrutable ability to play a mean game of pinball.
Naturally, the movie is about him (played by The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey), beginning with his birth in 1945 and ending with his reawakening as a much-worshipped figure of enlightenment in the modern world. Tommy is vaguely enwrapped in the need to tell a conventional story — his torrid relationships with his mother (Ann-Margret) and stepfather (Oliver Reed) are indispensable, and his eventual transforming into a wizard of pinball is what leads the film into territories of ambitious social commentary — but it’s so stylistically exorbitant that any attempt it makes at being revelatory or monumental is desultory, to say the least.
Because this is the kind of film that features an Ann-Margret-centered song-and-dance sequence that, by its end, leaves her covered in hundreds of pounds of baked beans (I won’t bother with an explanation). It’s the kind of film that provides its characters with names straight out of its own sort of Wonderland, ranging from The Acid Queen to The Preacher to The Specialist. And it’s also the kind of film that involves a subplot revolving around a cult that worships Marilyn Monroe, integrating cameo appearances from Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, and Eric Clapton as if it were casual, off the cuff.
There’s a lot going on at all times — all dialogue is sung, and the blue-ribbon soundtrack obsessively permeates the atmosphere — and so our initially vitalized response to Tommy quickly sours into blatant burnout. It’s magnificently original, expertly acted, and resplendently directed. But it’s also so much. It’s a hurricane of cinematic benevolence that runs for far too long; while its storyline is deserving of long-winded telling, the druggy energy level is too exhausting for us to want to get there. It’s a masterpiece 75 percent of the time, its tantalization fresher than ever. The pitfalls of its 25 percent either have to do with its failed attempts at satire (more fun to talk about than to watch) or its terminal Too Much At One Time syndrome. Solidified opinion on either varies.
But it’s still a must-watch, mostly because Russell’s sweaty aspiration only gets better with age, because the soundtrack really is amazing, and because Ann-Margret, not to mention co-stars Reed and the all-too-briefly breathtaking Turner, give unforgettably uninhibited performances. It’s a lot to take in. But its unconformity is agelessly pristine, and it does most of what it attempts to do well. Just make sure to take a deep breath before the viewing process begins: this isn’t your average movie musical. B+