“Tommy is the only rock opera ever made” – Ken Russell
Sad Ann-Margret’s husband is killed in the war. Some time later she goes on vacation and meets Bernie (Oliver Reed) at a resort. He moves in, but one night the husband returns, disfigured from a plane crash, and Bernie kills him in front of little Tommy, who’s told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, won’t say anything. And so he doesn’t ever again.
Tommy grows up to be curly-haired space-cadet Roger Daltrey. He’s not healed by attending Eric Clapton’s church of Marilyn worship, nor when Bernie gives him a night with extreme drug fiend Tina Turner (filling in for David Bowie), nor when he’s left with psychically abusive babysitter Paul Nicholas or sexually abusive Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon), nor from a visit to Dr. Jack Nicholson (filling in for Christopher Lee).
But one day Tommy finds something he’s good at. After defeating Elton John (who agreed to be in the movie provided he got to keep these boots) at a pinball championship, he becomes famous and attracts hundreds of groupies.
At home, mom celebrates their new wealth by throwing a bottle of champagne through the television and writhing in the bubbles, baked beans and chocolate that pour forth from the damaged set.
Tommy breaks through his mom’s mirror and starts speaking again, becomes a messiah to kids everywhere, his symbol a cross with a pinball on top. Mom is his biggest supporter, and stepdad Bernie is the financial wizard, plotting to set up Tommy camps everywhere and sell merchandise everywhere else. But their prefab religion backfires and the kids revolt, killing Tommy’s parents. But he lives to bathe in waterfalls and climb mountains with a big cheery grin.
It’s a ridiculous story, a twisted excuse for lots of music and celebrity cameos. Russell was never a huge fan of rock music (I’m not a big Who fan myself, really only enjoy “I’m a Sensation” from this soundtrack), had written a follow-up to The Devils called The Angels about false religion, which he couldn’t get off the ground. When offered to direct a movie with sympathetic ideas to his own, which Russell could help mold (he got Pete Townshend to write additional scenes and change plot details) with a pre-sold celebrity cast – a batshit-crazy musical story that needed visual accompaniment – how could Ken say no? It might not be Ken’s purest personal vision, but I double-featured it with Song of Summer as memorial screenings when I heard he’d died.
Unsurprisingly produced by Robert Stigwood, who produced Jesus Christ Superstar (and later Grease). Oliver Reed (of The Devils, of course) was doing Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies around the same time. Daltrey would be back with Russell on Lisztomania, which I need to see. And Ann-Margret needs to be much more popular – she was fantastic in this.