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Worth A Look: 33.33%
Just Average: 4.76%
Pretty Crappy: 9.52%
Sucks: 9.52%

2 reviews, 30 user ratings

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Tommy (1975)
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by Jay Seaver

"The kind of overload that can leave you deaf, dumb, and blind."
4 stars

Opera is generally thought of as grandiose, bigger-than-life art. Rock & roll has always been looking to top itself in terms of bringing passion to its performances, to the point of Pete Townshend smashing his guitar onstage in a sort of rock-induced frenzy. So "Tommy" a rock opera written by Townshend and recorded by his band, The Who, is starting out ahead of the game in terms of being a handful. With the film in the hands of Ken Russell, it's an open question as to whether Russell is the kind of showman that the form needs or the guy who will push it too far over the top.

The story, which folks who unlike me have actually heard the album probably already know, is that little Tommy Walker's father was thought killed in the war before he was born. Mother Nora (Ann-Margaret) later remarries a nice-enough seeming man, but when Tommy spots Nora and Frank (Oliver Reed) murdering his newly-returned father (Robert Powell), he takes their admonition that he saw and heard nothing too much to heart, becoming psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind. This condition persists until he's an adult (and played by Who frontman Roger Daltry), although he does show an affinity for playing pinball, and becomes famous for it. Eventually, his senses are restored, a miraculous-seeming event that, rather than making him appear a fraud, sees him treated as a sort of prophet or guru.

The story in an opera of any kind is told primarily through the music, and the music is generally pretty good. I'm not really a big fan of The Who, but Townsend has legitimate storytelling skills. Ken Russell recognizes this, and doesn't seem to mess with the structure too much. The film is almost all songs and instrumental scenes bridging it, with very little sung dialog; it's about twenty minutes in before there's something that really seems like a "line", and that's just Nora calling Tommy's name. That's a difficult thing to sustain for the length of a movie. Adapting a screenplay from a record album must be a particularly difficult task - consider that when adapting a novel, you can omit the actual words describing visuals and actions from the finished product, but fans might not be keen with you doing that to lyrics. So I'm very impressed that there are few scenes in Tommy where what the audience sees and what it hears are redundant; the lyrics are seldom just unnecessary narration for what's happening on-screen.

Part of this is because the filmmakers gives us an orgy of visual detail. The film consists of a lot of bright primary colors, and Russell seems to delight in presenting us with sensual overload that Tommy is unable to perceive. The junkyard scene where Tommy discovers his first pinball machine and the "Pinball Wizard" number are two of the best examples: The junkyard is piled five layers deep with refuse, so Tommy isn't fumbling among piles, but negotiating canyons; "Pinball Wizard" makes Elton John's seventies costumes seem reserved by comparison.

Speaking of which, I found myself enjoying the "guest stars" more than the main cast. Tina Turner has a showstopping number as Acid Queen, the prostitute Frank hires to introduce Tommy to sex and drugs. What they do with Elton John is really kind of nifty - he's got the garish costume and gigantic boots that were a big part of his shtick when this movie was made, but he has the look and bearing of a working-class thug underneath the bright colors. Even as these scenes are advancing the plot, they stand out as different vocalists with different styles, doing their thing as well as contributing to the movie. Meanwhile, in contrast, Daltry spends the first half of his performance just staring into space. Oliver Reed delivers a fantastic physical presence - the man could dominate a screen - while the sound editors desperately try to splice together a good vocal performance. Ann-Margaret seems to vacillate wildly between being tortured and uncaring.

One of the biggest issues that the film doesn't quite navigate as well as it could is the age difference among the cast, or the lack thereof. Ann-Margaret is great as the sexy single/less-than-perfect mother when Tommy is being played by young Barry Winch, but the make-up job she's given as Tommy gets older really doesn't fool anyone. Thus, later scenes with this mother and son are probably more Oedipal than intended, since she's only got three years on Roger Daltry and really doesn't look like a woman with a grown son.

That's about when Tommy becomes able to see, hear, and speak again, and that's when the movie threatens to fall apart in earnest. The leap from Tommy being an interesting oddity to a cult messiah is a hard one, Oliver Reed gets less to do (further giving the impression that Nora's cheating on her husband with her own son - ick!), and Russell starts throwing crazy stuff on screen as if afraid of losing the audience's attention (what is up with the TV that vomits baked beans?). Daltry's being relied on to carry the film more, and especially back then, his ability to perform for a camera doesn't match his ability to perform on stage.

So what starts out as a spectacular achievement very nearly becomes a spectacular wreck. But that's rock & roll, I guess, with the energy often just as important as the storytelling - and say what you will about "Tommy", but it never lacks for energy.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2466&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/19/06 11:51:34
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User Comments

3/29/16 Anne all have said it already better than I could... 2 stars
4/19/14 s Absolutely nuts, but brilliant. 5 stars
11/19/10 Chad Dillon Cooper Great film that is a work of art. 5 stars
9/11/10 Nadine Russo Great film, even better music. 4 stars
8/28/10 Kermit Crissey Great music 4 stars
8/28/10 paul carter Classic,yet strange musical.Need to really be in the mood. 4 stars
3/06/07 action movie fan entertaining adaption of who,s rock opera-music is good but original who album is best 4 stars
10/04/06 Skobay Brilliant film, potrays the album perfectly!! Full of absolutely amazing visual metaphors! 5 stars
9/03/04 T.B. I wish they show more Jack 3 stars
10/01/03 Alice This one freaked me out big time when I was a kid ! 4 stars
8/23/03 Jonathan F. It shouldn't be compared in any way to the excellent rock opera. 2 stars
3/06/03 Charles Tatum Ann-Margret and Reed eclipse the rockers 4 stars
1/24/03 Nancy S. Truly Terrible, Ann Margaret is only 3 years older than Roger Daltry, plays his Mom! 1 stars
11/17/02 Lisa Ann Hurley fantastic 5 stars
11/07/02 robt good music 3 stars
7/03/02 Maia Absolutely HORRIBLE! The story line is completely uninvolving and just drags on and on... 1 stars
5/23/02 john k it sucks 1 stars
4/11/02 MG absolutely fantastic. i simply adore it! 5 stars
2/20/02 Mark Brainard Oliver Reed and Ann-Margaret can't sing and Elton John and Roger Daultry are AWESOME 2 stars
2/15/02 murat ENERGITIC ,COLURFUL ,but what the hell about the last 15 mns. 5 stars
1/24/02 Andrew Carden Doesn't Capture All That It Could, but It's Still A Powerful Musical. 4 stars
1/23/02 Mark Brainard Elton John and Tina Turner and Roger Daultry saved this flick from a total failure 2 stars
11/13/01 Paul Evans Loved this movie when I was a kid. Saw it 4 times, twice in a row at one theater!! Classic! 5 stars
7/18/01 Sean Stevens films lke moulin rouge owe a great debt to ken russell and this film. not for high mindedbu 4 stars
1/21/01 Adina Davis Tommy is an amazing movie. Pete Townshend did an amazing job with the music. 5 stars
1/20/01 K. Pooch Jesus Christ Superstar on an Acid Trip 1 stars
11/10/00 matt ann margret is sexy as hell and i love seeing her get covered in foam, beans and chocolate 5 stars
10/25/00 Jacl Mulhall, jr Finally we get to see what Pete Townshend had in his mind when he wrote this masterpiece. 5 stars
6/22/00 Purple Monster Still mind blowing !!!! 5 stars
6/11/00 Kyle Bernard The movie is the best!The movie is real strange but awesome and neat. 5 stars
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  26-Mar-1975 (PG)



Directed by
  Ken Russell

Written by
  Ken Russell
  Pete Townshend

  Oliver Reed
  Roger Daltrey
  Elton John
  Eric Clapton
  Keith Moon

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